Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 26, 2016

New York African Diaspora International Film Festival 2016

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 8:31 pm

Last night the African Diaspora International Film Festival (NYADIFF) opened in New York City. Based on the three films I had an opportunity to see in advance, I strongly urge you to visit their website and look for schedule information for those and other films that are intended to present such “films to diverse audiences, redesign the Black cinema experience, and strengthen the role of African and African descent directors in contemporary world cinema” as the organizers put it.

If you were like most on the left, including me, the idea of a biopic about Toussaint Louverture would be inextricably linked to a project associated with Danny Glover after he received $18 million from Hugo Chavez in 2006 to begin such a project. From the looks of http://www.louverturefilms.com/, it appears that the film will never be made since in Glover’s words the company started with Chavez’s money is now dedicated to a somewhat different agenda:

Louverture Films produces independent films of historical relevance, social purpose, commercial value and artistic integrity. Taking its name and inspiration from the leader of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture – famous for always creating an “opening” in the face of enormous obstacles – Louverture Films partners with progressive filmmakers and producers around the world and particularly from the global South, and pro-actively supports the employment and training of cast and crew from communities of color in the United States.

As it happens, you can still see a biopic about the man whose feats CLR James celebrated in “The Black Jacobins” as part of the NYADIFF. Made for French TV in a two-part series in 2012 and directed by Phillipe Niang, a Frenchman of Senegalese heritage, this is a tightly paced historical drama with excellent performances that should be on the “must see” list of anybody trying to understand the difficulties of the colonial revolution. In many ways, the struggle led by Toussaint Louverture prefigured the chaos in Syria today with its intractable divisions and meddling by outside powers.

Niang could have easily made a film that was 1800 minutes long rather than 180 and it still would have only scratched the surface of the Haitian revolution—or more properly speaking the one that occurred on the western half of the island called Hispaniola that was divided between Spanish and French rule. Known as Saint-Domingue, it was the Pearl of the Antilles to the French and just as key to the mother country’s prosperity as Jamaica was to the British.

When the rebellion began in 1791, Louverture made tactical alliances first with the Spanish and then with the French but only in the interests of the underlying principle of abolishing slavery. Jimmy Jean-Louis, a Haitian actor who turns in a tour de force performance of Louverture, is adept at portraying the complex relationship between his character and all the elites he is forced to compromise with in order to achieve his ultimate goal. Not only does he have to deal with outside powers, he has to balance clashing interests in Saint-Domingue, including those of the slaves, the Mulattos (the term used by the characters in the film as was the case historically) and the white plantation owners—some of whom were British.

Since this is a biopic, Niang used a narrative device that ties together all of the important stages of Louverture’s struggle against slavery. Jailed in France, he is visited by Pasquier, a cop sent by Bonaparte to find out where he has supposedly buried a vast treasure accumulated during his brief rule. This entails recording the details of Louverture’s life in the hopes of finally finding out the secret hiding place of the treasure, which eventually leads to a Citizen Kane Rosebud type ending.

Sitting in his cold cell, the ailing ex-General tells his life story that function as a series of flashbacks in the film. Most of it is true, even though it hardly conforms to the image that most of us have of Toussaint Louverture. I found myself consulting “The Black Jacobins” throughout the film just to make sure that Niang wasn’t making things up.

For example, in part one we see Louverture serving as a junior officer to Georges Biassou, an early leader of the revolt who is depicted in the film as a capricious drunk. Even if Niang’s portrait was overdrawn, James described him this way: “Biassou was a fire-eater, always drunk, always ready for the fiercest and most dangerous exploits.”

If there’s any value to Niang’s film, it is that it will spur audience members to study Haitian history, starting with CLR James’s classic. I plan to read it as soon as I can since its account of events in Louverture’s reign jibes with the film, as far as I can tell from a brief foray into “The Black Jacobins”. If you had the idea that James’s classic was some kind of hagiography, you will learn that for him Louverture was a combination of Trotsky and Stalin.

In part two of the film, we see Louverture—now a governor who has declared himself President for Life—inviting plantation owners back to Haiti and imposing forced labor on the former slaves after the fashion of the American south following the end of Reconstruction. As was the case in the cotton belt, former slaves in Haiti preferred to work on their own small plots rather than pick sugar cane. The film depicts Louverture directing his soldiers to impose labor discipline on a white-owned plantation. James writes:

His regulations were harsh. The labourers were sent to work 24 hours after he assumed control of any district, and he authorised the military commandants of the parishes to take measures necessary for keeping them on the plantations. The Republic, he wrote, has no use for dull or incapable men. It was forced labour and restraint of movement. But the need brooked no barriers.

His nephew Moïse, whose mother was killed by white rapists, was much more like the Louverture of our imagination. Played effectively by Giovanni Grangerac, he is constantly pressuring his uncle from the left—a Jacobin to his uncle’s Girondist in effect. Fed up by the refusal of Louverture to go “all the way”, he leads a Nat Turner type revolt that eventually is crushed by Louverture’s troops and lands him in front of a firing squad. James writes about Moïse’s resistance:

And in these last crucial months, Toussaint, fully aware of Bonaparte’s preparations, was busy sawing off the branch on which he sat. In the North, around Plaisance, Limb, Dondon, the vanguard of the revolution was not satisfied with the new regime. Toussaint’s discipline was hard, but it was infinitely better than the old slavery. What these old revolutionary blacks objected to was working for their white masters. Moïse was the Commandant of the North Province, and Moïse sympathised with the blacks. Work, yes, but not for whites. “Whatever my old uncle may do, I cannot bring myself to be the executioner of my colour. It is always in the interests of the metropolis that he scolds me; but these interests are those of the whites, and I shall only love them when they have given me back the eye that they made me lose in battle.”

Although I can recommend seeing this film without reservations, I would be remiss if I did not mention the highly critical review by historian Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall. Titled “Happy as a Slave: The Toussaint Louverture miniseries”, her article regards it as “well-intentioned” but bordering on Margaret Mitchell territory:

While Niang likely did not realize he was doing so, the film papers over the brutality of slavery. Violence against slaves is almost non-existent. Even in isolated instances (such as an invented scene where Toussaint’s chained father drowns; another where his invented sister reports being raped; and another in which mob of angry colons chases Toussaint), the film is quick to contrast bad whites with kindly slave-owners. Whippings are completely absent; work on the plantation looks peaceful and bucolic.

Yes, all this is true but one-sided. Niang probably didn’t see the need to portray slavery as brutal since this would have been assumed at the outset. Instead the focus is on Louverture’s heroic struggle to abolish slavery and to win independence for his nation against what turned out to be insurmountable odds. I say this on the day that Fidel Castro died, a man that CLR James would have likely regarded as the Toussaint Louverture of the 20th century.

On the surface, “Seasons of a Life” sounds like a Lifetime movie. A lawyer and his wife are dealing with her inability to become pregnant and adopt a baby boy. To help the couple raise him, they hire a sixteen-year-old nanny—a poor orphan–who the boy adores.

So does the husband but on a different basis. When the wife takes a business trip, he forces himself sexually on the nanny and continues to do so whenever the wife is away. This leads to her becoming pregnant and a refusal to have an abortion that the lawyer insists on her having. After the baby boy is born, he applies pressure once again on the vulnerable young woman to put the baby up for adoption that he will have first dibs on through prior agreement with the adoption agency’s chief.

The nanny in Horatio Alger fashion gets great grades in high school and wins a scholarship to college and then into law school. Once she is established, she shows up at the man’s home and announces that she plans to sue him for custody of her child.

This is not exactly a film I would have sought out but since it was made in Malawi by a Malawian director, I decided to watch it and am damned glad I did. This is a film that will tell you far more about the ascending middle class in Africa than any Thomas Friedman column plus it is a well-written and well-acted old fashioned tale of the sort that might have starred Bette Davis. Strongly recommended.

Finally there is “Youssou N’Dour: Return to Gorée” that chronicles the great Senegalese singer’s attempt to bond with African-American musicians in a kind of pilgrimage to the New World.

Located near Dakar, Senegal, the island of Gorée was one of West Africa’s major slavery depots. The film begins with N’Dour reflecting on the great injustice done to his homeland and his hopes for a new project involving various musicians whose ancestors might have departed from this terrible place. He will visit the New World to gather together a diverse group of musicians who share a common identification with Mother Africa.

After being joined in Senegal by his pianist Moncef Genoud, a blind Frenchman born in Tunisia, the two depart for the U.S.-the first stop Atlanta, Georgia. There they meet the Harmony Harmoneers, a local gospel group that he watches performing in church. Despite his affinity for their music, he stresses the need to avoid references to Jesus in their performances together. The songs that he is recruiting fellow African descendants to sing with him have to do with children getting a good education, not being saved by Jesus. Without making any obvious points about their religious differences, we see Youssou praying toward Mecca in his hotel room later.

Next stop is New Orleans, where N’Dour looks up drummer Idris Muhammad and bass player James Cammack. Muhammad, a devout Muslim like N’Dour, is like a number of American jazz musicians who were drawn to a religion in which racial discrimination does not tend to rear its ugly head. The enlarged group now wends its way to New York, where they pick up jazz vocalist Pyeng Threadgill, who is the daughter of avant-garde musician Henry Threadgill. A reception for Youssou N’Dour includes a special guest, Amiri Baraka, who reflects on the importance of African identity for him when he became politicized in the 1960s.

Ultimately the musicians arrive back in Dakar where they hear a local griot lecture on the injustices committed at Gorée. Idris Muhammad and Pyeng Threadgill are shown bonding with local musicians and ordinary citizens.

Throughout the film, we see Youssou N’Dour in performance in a setting somewhat different from the customary Afropop context. He has obviously developed a new affinity for jazz and meshes well with his ad hoc band gathered together for the occasion. The band is eventually joined by the Harmony Harmoneers in a performance that illustrates how music is the universal vocabulary of humanity.

March 3, 2016

They Will Have to Kill Us First; Timbuktu

Filed under: Africa,Film,Jihadists — louisproyect @ 10:10 pm

Two films dealing with the jihadist takeover in northern Mali will be considered in this review. The first is a remarkable documentary titled “They Will Have to Kill Us First” that opens tomorrow at the Village East in New York; the other is “Timbuktu”, a narrative film that was released in May of 2014 and that can now be seen on Amazon streaming. While “Timbuktu” has garnered a 99 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it is not without its problems. I have to admit that I walked out on it 15 minutes into a press screening two years ago but decided to give it another try in order to survey  such films within a broader consideration of the jihadist penetration of a country whose cultural significance is impossible to exaggerate. In both films, music and its banishment provide the narrative arc.

Directed by Joanna Schwartz, “They Will Have to Kill Us First”, is a profile of a group of musicians who were forced to leave the northern towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal after Ansar Dine (Arabic for defenders of the faith), a group aligned with al-Qaeda, took over. Now they are living in Bamako, the capital of Mali, or in other countries bordering Mali such as Burkina Faso. Drawn to Mali originally to cover the annual Festival in the Desert concert, Schwartz was introduced to Khaira Arby, the “nightingale of the north” who had sought refuge in Bamako. She was the person whose words about being denied the right to sing in her hometown Timbuktu serve as the film’s title.

She also profiles another female star exiled from the north known as Disco to her fans. Her real name is Fadimata Walet Oumar, the wife of a man identified only as “Jimmy” who was a top military leader of the Tuareg insurrection that was in a united front with Ansar Dine at one point. In the tangled political history of Mali, it is necessary to acknowledge that simple divisions between “good” and “evil” were not possible. The central government in Bamako had oppressed the Tuaregs for generations just as Bashar al-Assad had oppressed the Sunni majority. When the Tuareg resistance emerged as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), it found itself tactically aligned with the jihadists of Ansar Dine, a group that was made up of members of the Ifora tribe of Tuaregs and their allies from Algeria and Nigeria. The MNLA was dedicated to carving out a territory much as the Kurds are attempting in Syria and Iraq while Ansar Dine’s goal was to create an Islamic State based on Sharia law in all of Mali. Considering the possibility that the MNLA fueled the flames that led to his wife’s exile, Jimmy struggles between his ideals and the harsh reality they collided with.

Disco’s neighbor in Timbuktu was the guitarist Moussa Sidi who is now living in exile in Burkina Faso eking out a living playing in tiny clubs and at weddings. His wife stayed behind in Gao where she worked as an MNLA activist. Jailed for her beliefs, she remained unrepentant. Unlike her, Sidi was far more interested in music and good times than politics even though as a Tuareg he opposed the oppression his people suffered and remained true to his Muslim beliefs.

Finally, there are the members of Songhoy Blues, a group with no particular connection to the Tuareg struggle who fled to Bamako to escape the violence and tyrannical social norms of the north. They exemplify the Malian esthetic with their blend of American rock, Arabic harmony and Sub-Saharan rhythms. After they came to the attention of Brian Eno, the band toured England to great acclaim.

The film mixes interviews with the various musicians and their performances. It also includes a soundtrack from other Malian musicians including Ali Farka Touré, a superstar guitarist from the north who died in 2006 long before the troubles might have driven him into exile as well.

The climax of the film consists of the musicians on a return to Timbuktu to perform before adoring fans, only made possible by the military defeat of Ansar Dine by the Malian military and French intervention on its behalf. The Tuareg question still remains unresolved.

In the press notes for “They Will Have to Kill Us First”, Schwartz provides an answer to the question “What did the extremist groups do?”:

Extremists imposing Islamic law in Mali’s north were abusing human rights, particularly those of women, and paying families for children to become rebel fighters.

They imposed an extremist version of sharia law: music, football, alcohol and cigarettes were banned. There were cases of summary execution of captured soldiers, instances of lootings, rapes, stonings, beheadings and amputations. Women were forced to be covered and their ability to work was restricted. Men were forced to wear short trousers. Forced marriages happened – with a wife costing less than $1,000. Children were enlisted to fight and their families were paid about $600 or less.

The extremists destroyed ancient shrines, manuscripts from Timbuktu, and Sufi mosques. Radio stations, mobile phone towers and satellites were also destroyed.

This is essentially the conditions described in “Timbuktu” that begins with a scene depicting machine gun fire shattering African statues.

From that point on, the film pits longtime Timbuktu residents trying in their own passive resistance way to live as they have for millennia. They are observant Muslims but resistant to the Wahhabi straightjacket that Ansar Dine is trying to impose on them. We see its chieftan wrangling with a local imam who abjures them from oppressing the people with their harsh rule. When the Salafist states that they are obeying jihad, the imam replies that he too is for jihad but only within in his own heart as he struggles to avoid evil.

In a most telling scene, Ansar Dine morality police are sent out on a mission to find out the source of music that has been banned, just like soccer and long pants for men. When they track down the culprits, they are not sure what to do since the words of the singers accompanying a jaunty tune has to do with glorifying Allah rather than chasing after the opposite sex. It doesn’t matter. They are arrested and whipped.

The main character in the film is Kidane, a Tuareg herdsman who has stayed behind with his wife and daughter in the desert not far from Timbuktu determined to survive under jihadi rule even as all of his neighbors have fled. To show that he symbolizes Tuareg traditional values, he plays the guitar in his tent to provide the kind of entertainment his people have enjoyed from time immemorial.

Eventually a quarrel with a local fisherman escalates into a violent confrontation that leaves the fisherman dead and Kidane being arrested. His trial by a Sharia court is fairly consistent with the actual practice and arguably a lot less irrational than the other rules imposed on townspeople, including one that forces women to wear gloves at all times even if they are handling fish in the marketplace.

What the film lacks, and to an extent this is true of the documentary as well, is any kind of background on what caused Ansar Dine to be spawned and its ambivalent relationship to the long suffering Tuareg people. By characterizing Ansar militants as a kind of horror movie deus ex machina, and by failing to put its invasion into any kind of context, the film suffers from a certain amount of dramatic flattening. It would have made for a more interesting film if the leader of the jihadists had a back story that explained why he became such a fanatic. Since director Abderrahmane Sissako represented him as an Arab who did not even speak the local language, he remained rather opaque.

That being said, the film is definitely worth watching especially if you are trying to get a handle on the local manifestation of a global problem that some regard as the greatest threat to Western civilization since the days of the Ottoman Empire at its height. Perhaps the one-sided portrayal of the jihadists explains the 99 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. With Arab terrorists and fanatics replacing the Communists and Nazis as evil incarnate, films such as “Timbuktu” satisfy a certain self-righteousness in the intelligentsia. It would have been a far more interesting film if it accurately reflected the true leader of Ansar Dine, who in fact was not an Arab but a Tuareg named Iyad Ag Ghaly who was a native son of northern Mali.

Ghaly was a leader of the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s that foreshadowed the 2012 events depicted in the film. Indeed, his evolution into a hardcore Salafist could have provided a most interesting back story that would have enriched the film, as indicated by a fascinating article that appeared in the March 30 2012 Time Magazine (http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2110673,00.html):

The vitriolic falling out between ag Ghali and the MNLA goes some way to illustrating the complicated tapestry of interests and tensions within the Tuareg rebellion, a topic that swam into focus first after weaponry from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s looted arsenals flooded into the Sahara last year. With thousands of expatriate Tuaregs who worked for Gaddafi’s military forced to flee Libya amid the revolutionary chaos, much of the hardware is thought to have made its way to northern Mali. Desolate and unpoliceable, this swathe of desert and rocky scrub is also home to the regional terror franchise, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. That combination set alarm bells ringing. What, exactly, was the relationship between Tuareg fighters, with access to large quantities of heavy weaponry, and AQIM?

The truth, of course, is complicated. With an eye to U.S. military assistance, economic aid, international sympathy, the Malian government has much to gain by tarring the MNLA with the al-Qaeda brush — but the links are tenuous. True, over the years al-Qaeda emirs “are said to have worked to create some local relationships, both through marriage and transactions with some segments of local Tuareg and Arab communities,” explains Andrew Lebovich, an analyst with the Navanti Group who focuses on Sahelian issues. But “AQIM itself has yet to claim a role in the [Tuareg rebellion], and no overt evidence has been produced to show an AQIM role in the fighting in the north.”

Nor is Tuareg society the best fodder for Islamic fundamentalists. “Tuaregs prefer to worry about enjoying this life rather than… ensuring the perfect afterlife,” a U.S. diplomat wrote in 2009. Tuareg women go unveiled; the menfolk cover their faces but drink and dance. In fact, it is the government in Bamako — rather than the veiled warriors of the north — that may have abetted the terrorists. In 2010, an Algerian diplomat told his US counterpart that someone in the Malian establishment had tipped off AQIM operatives ahead of a combined Algerian-Malian mission against the organization, enabling the terrorists to slip the net. “It looks worse than weakness on the part of the Malians,” the Algerian diplomat growled. “It looks like willful complicity.”

Yet none of this helps explain ag Ghali and his defenders of the faith. “Iyad is a special case,” says Andy Morgan, author of a forthcoming book on the Tuareg and a former band manager of Tuareg rockers Tinariwen. “He has undoubted strengths as a political and military leader, with a perhaps a greater grasp of political tactics and subterfuge than any other Tuareg. [And] he was as much of a hedonist as many of the other [Tuareg] living in Algeria and Libya… apparently, a great fan of cigarettes, booze and partying.” Later, the story goes, ag Ghali underwent a religious re-birth, growing a voluminous beard and getting kicked out of Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, during a diplomatic posting, for consorting with jihadists.

Speaking of Tinariwen:

 

November 13, 2015

Democracy, Mugabe-Style

Filed under: Africa,democracy — louisproyect @ 3:32 pm

Democracy, Mugabe-Style

Beginning on Wednesday November 18th, the Film Forum in New York will be showing “Democrats”, a cinéma vérité documentary judged best at the Tribeca Film Festival this year. Directed by Camilla Nielsson, a Danish director trained at NYU who has made political documentaries since 2003, it consists exclusively of footage of two Zimbabwean lawyers as they go around the country making the case for and against Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. On the pro side is Paul Mangwana, a former Minister of Information; on the con side is Douglas Mwonzora, an adviser to Morgan Tsvangirai, the head of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Both men have been assigned by their rival parties to work on a new constitution. It is 2008, when Mugabe and Tsvangirai rule Zimbabwe in a nominally power-sharing arrangement that resulted from political and economic pressure, particularly from the USA and Britain. Serving on the Constitutional Parliamentary Committee (COPAC), they traveled across the country over a three year period to monitor community meetings tacitly organized to hear ordinary people express their views on matters such as term limits, etc.

Almost as if on cue from central casting, the ZANU-PF representative Paul Mangwana is cynical and mocking, implying on numerous occasions that he regards the whole exercise as a dog and pony show. By contrast, Mwonzora is sober and thoughtful.

However, don’t expect a simple morality tale to unfold. The film is much more interested in demonstrating the tangled nature of Zimbabwean politics where Mugabe’s continuing rule after 35 years is only partially based on violence. To a large extent the dominance of the ZANU-PF is a function of the ineptitude of the opposition as can be gleaned from a key scene. When Mwonzora shows up at rural village to get a report on how the meetings on the draft constitution went, an MDC member tells him it did not go well at all. Their party members showed up drunk and unclear about their purpose. For Mangwana, the domination of the meeting by ZANU-PF members was easy to understand. Smiling like the cat that ate the canary, he says that his party was better organized.

Read full review

October 30, 2015

Sembène and the Spirit of Rebellion

Filed under: Africa,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:40 pm

Saul Bellow once asked tauntingly “who was the Zulu Tolstoy” in an obvious dismissal of African potential. Considering the career of filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, who is the subject of the great documentary “Sembène” that opens on November 6th at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, you would conclude that the potential is enormous, held back only by what Andre Gunder Frank once called the development of underdevelopment.

Although I have been following Sembène’s film career for decades, “Sembène” offered new insights into what a genius he was. Born in 1923, his father a fisherman, Sembène fell in love with movies at an early age after seeing scenes of Jesse Owens’ track victories in Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi Olympics documentary. “For the first time,” he told the LA Times in 1995, “a black honored us by beating whites. . . . It became the film for the young people of my generation.” We can be sure that this was not Riefenstahl’s intention.

Sembène quit high school after punching out a teacher who had hit him first. He then joined the Free French army during World War II. After the war he became a rail worker, participating in an epochal Dakar-Niger railroad strike in 1947-48. After stowing away in a ship to France, he became a longshoreman in Marseilles and a member of the French Communist Party.

In France he started writing fiction in order to depict the reality of modern African life that could best be represented by the African. As the documentary points out, he was to become a modern version of the griot, the travelling storyteller who was to Africa as Homer was to the Greeks. Indeed, the real question is “who was the African Homer”, not Tolstoy. The answer is that Ousmane Sembène comes pretty close.

His first novel “The Black Docker” was published in 1956. But in the early 1960s, Sembène decided to turn his attention to filmmaking (“the people’s night school”) because most Africans were illiterate and could only be reached with this medium. His films would follow the same road as his writing, to offer an alternative to Tarzan movies and garish epics like “Mandingo.” “We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms,” he said.

read full article

May 5, 2014

Obiang’s enablers

Filed under: Africa,corruption,oil — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm

President Barack Obama, President Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, and their First Ladies

From Wikipedia:

Controversy

In July 2003, state-operated radio declared Obiang “the country’s god” and had “all power over men and things.” It added that the president was “in permanent contact with the Almighty” and “can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to hell.” He personally made similar comments in 1993. Macías had also proclaimed himself a god.[14]

Obiang has encouraged his cult of personality by ensuring that public speeches end in well-wishing for himself rather than for the republic. Many important buildings have a presidential lodge, many towns and cities have streets commemorating Obiang’s coup against Macías, and many people wear clothes with his face printed on them.[15][16]

Like his predecessor and other African dictators such as Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko, Obiang has assigned to himself several creative titles. Among them are “gentleman of the great island of Bioko, Annobón and Río Muni.”[17] He also refers to himself as El Jefe (the boss).[18]

In 2008, American journalist Peter Maass identified Obiang as Africa’s worst dictator, worse than Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.[19]

Since the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, Obiang has been the world’s longest-ruling non-royal head of state.

In an October 2012 interview on CNN, Christiane Amanpour asked Obiang whether he would step down at the end of the current term (2009–2016) since he has been reelected at least four times in his over thirty years’ reign. In a Gaddafi-like reply, Obiang categorically refused to step down at the end of the term despite the limits set on presidential service in the 2011 constitution.[20]

Abuses

Abuses under Obiang have included “unlawful killings by security forces; government-sanctioned kidnappings; systematic torture of prisoners and detainees by security forces; life threatening conditions in prisons and detention facilities; impunity; arbitrary arrest, detention, and incommunicado detention.”[21]

Wealth

Forbes magazine has said that Obiang, with a net worth of US$600 million, is one of the world’s wealthiest heads of state.[22] Official sources have complained that Forbes is wrongly counting state property as personal property.[23]

In 2003, Obiang told his citizenry that he felt compelled to take full control of the national treasury in order to prevent civil servants from being tempted to engage in corrupt practices. To avoid this corruption, Obiang deposited more than half a billion dollars into accounts controlled by Obiang and his family at Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., leading a U.S. federal court to fine the bank $16 million.[24] Later scrutiny by a United States Senate investigation in 2004 found that the Washington-based Riggs Bank took $300 million on behalf of Obiang from Exxon Mobil and Amerada Hess.[25]

In 2008, the country became a candidate of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative – an international project meant to promote openness about government oil revenues – but never qualified and missed an April 2010 deadline.[25] Transparency International includes Equatorial Guinea as one of its twelve most-corrupt states.[25][26]

Beginning in 2007 Obiang, along with several other African state leaders, came under investigation for corruption and fraud in the use of funds. He was suspected of using public funds to finance his private mansions and luxuries, both for himself and his family. He and his son, in particular, owned several properties and supercars in France. In addition, several complaints were filed in US courts against Obiang’s son. Their attorney’s stressed that the funds appropriated by both Obiang’s were done so entirely legally under Equatoguinean laws, although they may not agree with international standards.[27]

From the Militant newspaper, a socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people:

N.Y. conference discusses
Equatorial Guinea today
(feature article)

BY MARTÍN KOPPEL
HEMPSTEAD, New York—A three-day international conference at Hofstra University on Long Island was a forum for discussion and debate on a wide range of topics about Equatorial Guinea—its history, economic development, languages, natural resources, literature and art, biodiversity, and ethnic composition and conflicts. The event, held here April 2-4, was titled “Between Three Continents: Rethinking Equatorial Guinea on the 40th Anniversary of Its Independence from Spain.”

Equatorial Guinea, a Central African country of about 1 million inhabitants, gained its independence from Spanish colonial rule in October 1968. For 11 years the people of Equatorial Guinea faced a brutal dictatorship under the first president, Francisco Macías, who in 1979 was overthrown by young Guinean military officers led by Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the current president. Since the mid-1990s the exploitation of the country’s newly discovered oil and natural gas reserves has turned it into the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa.

In what was one of the least economically developed nations in Africa, the government is today using some of the revenues from the labor of those who work in the oil fields to begin to create the nationwide infrastructure necessary for industrial development—such as paved roads, electrification, cellular phone networks, safe water distribution, primary health care, and the national university. Equatorial Guinea remains marked by the contradictions between this rapid transformation of production and the legacy of millennia of economic activity based on hunting, fishing, and subsistence agriculture, distorted by subjugation to slave traders and colonial domination.

(clip)

December 20, 2013

Screening Slavery

Filed under: Africa,Film,slavery — louisproyect @ 6:22 pm

We need more films like “Quilombo”–about slave revolts rather than slavery.

Counterpunch Weekend Edition December 20-22, 2013

Screening Slavery
by LOUIS PROYECT

In a podcast discussion between veteran film critic Armond White and two younger film journalists focused on their differences over “12 Years a Slave” (White, an African-American with a contrarian bent hated it), White argued in favor of benchmarks. How could the two other discussants rave about Steve McQueen’s film without knowing what preceded it? That was all the motivation I needed to see the two films White deemed superior to McQueen’s—“Beloved” and “Amistad”—as well as other films about slavery that I had not seen before, or in the case of Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Queimada” and Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” films I had not seen in many years. This survey is not meant as a definitive guide to all films about the “peculiar institution” but only ones that are most familiar. Even if I characterize a film as poorly made, I still recommend a look at all of them since as a body of work they shed light on the complex interaction of art and politics, a topic presumably of some interest to CounterPunch readers.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/12/20/screening-slavery/

December 7, 2013

Thoughts triggered by the passing of Nelson Mandela

Filed under: Africa,philosophy — louisproyect @ 2:05 pm

In December of 1987 I traveled to southern Africa with a small Tecnica delegation to meet with the African National Congress then still in exile over the feasibility of extending our Nicaragua technical aid project to the ANC and the frontline states.

We were invited to Thabo Mbeki’s house in Lusaka, Zambia where his wife Zanele asked me to take a look at her laptop computer. She was having trouble saving the file she was working on, which was Oliver Tambo’s speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the ANC. It turns out that she needed to put a formatted floppy diskette into the B drive in order to save Tambo’s speech. Once she did that, the speech was saved for posterity’s sake. I just discovered that the speech, which was delivered on May 13, 1988, can now be read online.

Tambo expressed his solidarity with revolutionary Nicaragua in the speech:

We must also pay tribute to the people of Central America who are daily sacrificing their lives for justice and peace. In this connection we support the peace efforts undertaken by the Sandinista Government and would also like to associate ourselves with those Non-Aligned countries who have expressed their support for the Nicaraguan Government`s candidature to host the next Non-Aligned Summit Meeting in Managua.

He also paid tribute to Nelson Mandela who was still in prison:

In July of this year, our organisation, the masses of our people and the rest of the international community will observe the 70th birthday of that great African patriot and revolutionary, Comrade Nelson Mandela. This will be an occasion further to intensify the campaign for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, the release of all detainees and the granting of prisoner-of-war status to all captured freedom fighters.

Just two years after Tambo gave this speech, Daniel Ortega would lose the election to Violeta Chamorro, the American-backed politician who would be the culmination of Ronald Reagan’s campaign to make the Nicaraguans “cry uncle”. Ortega was only able to return to power by forsaking the historical Sandinista program for socialism.

On February 11th 1990 Nelson Mandela would walk out of a South African prison, and four years later he became president of South Africa, serving five years. Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, whose policies parallel that of the chastened FSLN in Nicaragua, succeeded him in office. In an article that appeared in the January 10, 2013 issue of Foreign Policy, there’s a frank description of “Orteganomics” that sounds a lot like what the ANC has been carrying out since taking office:

Although Ortega campaigned on the Christianity, socialism and solidarity platform of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s Alianza Bolivariana (ALBA), his regime has few of the trappings common to other ALBA countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and several Caribbean islands. His actions to date suggest he is politically authoritarian, economically pro-business, socially populist — and, above all else, pragmatic. This mix translates as an eclectic set of policies that can best be characterized as Orteganomics.

The Marxist slogans of the revolutionary period are gone, as is direct government involvement in production. In fact, Ortega’s economic model retains many of the legal and regulatory underpinnings of his predecessors’ policies. In its October 2007 reconciliation with the IMF, the Sandinista government pledged to implement policies linked to targets on fiscal discipline, along with spending on poverty and energy regulation.

Sometimes I wonder how I keep at it. As I approach my 69th birthday in January, every single mass revolutionary movement I have organized to defend has turned out this way once taking power. If you had told me in 1967, when I joined the Trotskyist movement, that a victorious NLF would join the Communists in the north in transforming Vietnam into a nation in which there are billionaires, I would have laughed in your face. But here it is from the March 25, 2013 issue of Forbes, the magazine that proudly describes itself as a “capitalist tool”:

On a brilliant morning last October Dong Khoi Street, the premier commercial thoroughfare in Saigon, was closed for nearly two hours to celebrate the opening of Vincom Center A, a precisely, if infelicitously, named shopping center. The development was remarkable, not just for its scale (410,000 square feet of commercial space; three floors of underground parking; a 300-room, five-star hotel) or for its high-end tenants (Versace, Hermès, Dior) but simply because it was opening at all. Vietnam’s real estate market had been frozen hard since crashing in 2011, with at least 13.5% of the country’s $10 billion in real estate loans having gone bad.

But Pham Nhat Vuong, the man most responsible for this $500 million commercial triumph in the heart of what is still officially called Ho Chi Minh City, wasn’t drinking any champagne, cutting any ribbons or giving any speeches. Rather, the 44-year-old quietly watched the ceremony from a front-row seat. “I prefer sipping happiness by myself,” Pham explains later, in a rare interview from his elegant new offices in Hanoi’s Vincom Village, another of his projects.

After returning from Zambia in early 1988, Michael Urmann, the founder and executive director of Tecnica, hired his old friend and comrade Hari Dillon to supervise the expansion of our organization into Africa. By 1990, when the ANC was legalized, we had dozens of volunteers working in the offices of the ANC and COSATU training people in the use of databases and spreadsheets just as we had done in Nicaragua. Michael and Hari had been in the Maoist Progressive Labor Party in the late 60s and had kept in touch. After leaving the party, Hari had become a key anti-apartheid activist in the Bay Area and his connections helped us raise funds for our work in Africa. Unfortunately, the ouster of Daniel Ortega dried up funds for Tecnica and eventually we folded—when I am not exactly sure.

Not long afterwards Hari took a job with the Vanguard Foundation, a Bay Area philanthropic group that funded leftist causes. I had lost touch with Hari for over 20 years but was shocked to discover about a year ago that he had been arrested for misuse of Vanguard funds. I kept in touch with him throughout the trial until his sentencing in January of 2013. He is going to serve three years and four months as the San Francisco Gate reported that month:

An East Bay man who stole $2.5 million from investors in the San Francisco nonprofit he headed while it was being driven into bankruptcy by con man Samuel “Mouli” Cohen was sentenced to three years and four months in federal prison Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer sentenced Hari Dillon to a prison term 10 months longer than federal prosecutors had recommended after a hearing that included testimony from some of Dillon’s victims, investors in the now-defunct Vanguard Public Foundation.

“He decimated the lives of those he called friends,” said Cindy Woods, who described herself as a former friend of Dillon’s and a swindled investor, along with her family. “He’s simply a sociopath, not a victim.”

The FBI issued a press release that described what Hari did with the money contributors trusted him with:

Dillon admitted that while soliciting and collecting these fees, he defrauded various victims by intentionally failing to tell them that he intended to and did use some of their contributions for his own personal expenses. For example, according to his plea agreement, Dillon used approximately $60,000 to pay his American Express bills. In addition, the government noted in connection with sentencing that Dillon used victim money toward luxury hotel expenses, fine dining, limousine travel, and other personal expenses. In all, Dillon admitted that of the tens of millions he solicited and collected for this investment, most of which he passed on to Cohen, Dillon skimmed not less than $2.5 million, defrauding his victims out of that amount.

I knew Hari when he lived modestly in a San Francisco apartment on a Tecnica salary. I am tempted to say that his evolution into someone staying at luxury hotels parallels the evolution of the FSLN in Nicaragua and the ANC in South Africa.

When I visited Thabo Mbeki back in 1987-88, I had suspicions that he was someone used to the good life. He lived in a two-story house in Lusaka and drove a Mercedes-Benz that was parked in the driveway. His father Govan was known as a member of the South African Communist Party and was arrested along with Nelson Mandela. As it turns out, Thabo Mbeki was also a CP’er, Mercedes-Benz and all.

And, surprise of surprises, so was Nelson Mandela. I refer you to the South African Communist Party’s website:

At his arrest in August 1962, Nelson Mandela was not only a member of the then underground South African Communist Party, but was also a member of our Party’s Central Committee. To us as South African communists, Cde Mandela shall forever symbolise the monumental contribution of the SACP in our liberation struggle. The contribution of communists in the struggle to achieve the South African freedom has very few parallels in the history of our country. After his release from prison in 1990, Cde Madiba became a great and close friend of the communists till his last days.

There was a time, when I was much younger, when I would have made some “smug” remark about Stalinism but after seeing that Trotskyism was no prophylactic against corruption, I will avoid that temptation. In fact I had high hopes that the South African Communist Party would turn out different. At least I can take solace that one of the party’s top leaders has never lost faith. Here’s Ronnie Kasrils from the June 23, 2013 Guardian:

What I call our Faustian moment came when we took an IMF loan on the eve of our first democratic election. That loan, with strings attached that precluded a radical economic agenda, was considered a necessary evil, as were concessions to keep negotiations on track and take delivery of the promised land for our people. Doubt had come to reign supreme: we believed, wrongly, there was no other option; that we had to be cautious, since by 1991 our once powerful ally, the Soviet union, bankrupted by the arms race, had collapsed. Inexcusably, we had lost faith in the ability of our own revolutionary masses to overcome all obstacles. Whatever the threats to isolate a radicalising South Africa, the world could not have done without our vast reserves of minerals. To lose our nerve was not necessary or inevitable. The ANC leadership needed to remain determined, united and free of corruption – and, above all, to hold on to its revolutionary will. Instead, we chickened out.

So what keeps me going? In a way I feel like Sisyphus, the King of Corinth in Greek mythology who the gods force to eternally roll a huge boulder up a hill that rolls back on him just as he reaches the top. I first learned of the myth of Sisyphus back in 1961 when I was a freshman at Bard College. Back then existentialism was all the rage. The acrid smell of Gauloise cigarettes hung heavy in the campus coffee shop as 18 year olds discussed the meaninglessness of life. You can read Camus’s book online. I haven’t looked at it since 1961 and tend to look askance at Camus nowadays, especially for his waffling on the war of independence in Algeria. I have to admit, however, that a favorable review of his correspondence from that period by George Scialabba, a writer I admire very much, might force me to take a second look.

Most of Camus’s book is an examination of existential beliefs focused on the question of whether suicide is justifiable in the face of an absurd world. Since I tend to shy away from such discussions, I went directly to the pages that deal with the Greek myth itself. Camus writes:

His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.

“There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night”. I guess those words describe my absurd commitment to Marxism. Like the Greek gods who condemned Sisyphus to repeat a futile act throughout eternity, I will continue to push that rock up the hill for the rest of my life. I don’t know if I will ever see the sun but it is the shadows of a savage system that keeps me going.

November 13, 2013

Fela in performance

Filed under: Africa,dance,music — louisproyect @ 4:11 am

November 2, 2013

Behind the Blue Veil; Following the Ninth

Filed under: Africa,Film,music — louisproyect @ 7:12 pm

Woe betides a people unfortunate enough to have been excluded from statehood as colonialism drew its final breath. The Palestinians and the Kurds come immediately to mind but so do the Tuaregs who like the Kurds were dispersed across a number of states, often with clashing interests but who could agree on the question of keeping the Kurds down.

“Behind the Blue Veil”, a documentary that opened yesterday at the Quad in NY, is an excellent introduction to the people who were able to make a home for themselves in the Sahara desert for thousands of years but who are now driven to undertake a costly civil war against a Malian government more deadly than the arid sands. The wisdom of the ages handed down over generations allows the Tuaregs to find an oasis but there are no easy answers to a dictatorship’s tanks and planes.

Directed by Robyn Symon with very few frills and clocking in at a brief but meaty 62 minutes, “Behind the Blue Veil” consists of interviews with Tuaregs in Mali as well as academic experts who identify the problems of a people cloaked in obscurity. The “blue” of the film’s title refers to the dye used in Tuareg garments that tends to color the skin of those wearing them. Unlike other peoples of Muslim North Africa, it is the man rather than the woman who wears the veil. Also, unlike other Muslim ethnicities, Tuareg society is matrilineal. These are just some of the things that you will learn from this most informative documentary that is never stodgy.

What enlivens it the most is the force of the Tuareg personalities, especially the “star” of the film, the music producer Mamatal Ag Dahmane who warns that unless something is done as quickly as possible, his people will disappear. The underlying cause of Tuareg desperation is the loss of their basic economic role as a kind of communal transportation company connecting Sub-Saharan Africa with the North. Their camels carried precious goods like salt and gold back and forth. Once highways and air transportation became prevalent, they became redundant. Mali and Niger have done little to help the Tuaregs out of a combination of chauvinism and a lack of funding.

Most people became aware of the Tuareg in the aftermath of the rebellion against Gaddafi. They were mercenaries used against the rebels driven more by economic desperation than any kind of fervor for “Green Socialism”. Some Gaddafi supporters stigmatized the rebels as racist because they sought reprisals against the Tuaregs as if it were a conflict mapping to skin color. However, when you look at all the personalities in the film, you will see only one that appears Black. Most in fact resemble the ethnic group they belong to—the Berbers who proved decisive in the dictator’s overthrow. The Tuareg language is a subset of Berber and they share the same mode of subsistence as nomadic herdsmen.

Once Gaddafi was overthrown, the Tuaregs returned to Mali and Niger with their weapons determined to create a new state in the north of Mali called Azawad. Almost as soon their insurgency started, jihadists began their own armed struggle with its own agenda using the same totalitarian tactics against “infidels” such as the kind being used now in Northern Syria. As a sign that the US has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests—as Kissinger put it—it has been training Tuareg rebels so that they can fend off the jihadists.

The film is not primarily a guide to all the factions on the ground in Northern Mali but an introduction to a people that is sorely needed. Since Mali appears to be a country that is subject to the same contradictory dynamics of ethnicity, religion, and class at work in the tribal areas of Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere, it is incumbent on the left to keep an eye on the region. Robyn Symon’s film is a good place to start.

Also opening yesterday at the Quad is “Following the Ninth: in the footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony”, a documentary by Kerry Candaele that explores the importance of this great work to people living in China, Chile, East Germany, and Japan. The first three nations appropriated their music for freedom struggles, while in Japan it functions more as a kind of semireligious ritual in December celebrating the people’s humanity and the divinity of music.

In interviews with people who put their bodies on the line in Tiananmen Square, defending Allende against the military coup, and opposing Stalinism and the artificial barriers of the Berlin Wall, Beethoven’s Ninth was as important as any leaflet. The “Ode to Joy” was often sung in the spirit of Billy Bragg who performs it at the beginning of the film with his own words.

If you’ve read my review of “A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology”, you will know that Zizek is unimpressed with all this, stating that the Nazis also loved Beethoven’s Ninth. While it is difficult to argue with this, it is also difficult to argue with the notion that Friedrich Schiller’s worldview was antithetical to that of National Socialism. Schiller’s play “Don Carlos” that was adapted for Verdi’s opera is a stirring denunciation of monarchy.

This is not to speak of Beethoven’s own politics that were in sympathy with the French Revolution even when Schiller recoiled from its excesses. None other than the composer who fled Bolshevism made the case for Beethoven’s revolutionary fiber:

Beethoven is the friend and contemporary of the French Revolution, and he remained faithful to it even when, during the Jacobin dictatorship, humanitarians with weak nerves of the Schiller type turned from it, preferring to destroy tyrants on the theatrical stage with the help of cardboard swords. Beethoven, that plebeian genius, who proudly turned his back on emperors, princes and magnates – that is the Beethoven we love for his unassailable optimism, his virile sadness, for the inspired pathos of his struggle, and for his iron will which enabled him to seize destiny by the throat.”

–Igor Stravinsky

http://www.marxist.com/beethoven-man-composer-revolutionary190506.htm

October 11, 2013

God Loves Uganda; Cooper & Hemingway: the True Gen

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 9:32 pm

I’m as willing as any other socialist to declare myself okay with religion, especially when it comes to liberation theology. Also, I do understand that when Marx likened religion to opium, he did not expect his followers to declare war on it like the DEA war on drugs. He said in the 1843 “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”: “To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.” Yet after watching “God Loves Uganda”, the documentary that opens today at the Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas in New York today (nationwide screening information is here), I was reminded why I became an atheist if not a god-hater. “God Loves Uganda” is a scathing exposé of the evangelical missionaries who make the priests who accompanied Cortés and Pizarro look benign by comparison.

The documentary is focused on a mega-church that operates out of Kansas City, the city of my birth, called International House of Prayer (IHOP). Like the pancake empire, this is an outfit that views Ugandans as their “market”. You see the missionaries being trained at church headquarters as if they were expected to open franchises rather than save souls. Like many of the evangelical hustlers, IHOP operates a vast electronics empire dispensing its sermons across television stations worldwide as well as the Internet. The head bible-thumper shown in the film is one Lou Engel, a bald, middle-aged father of seven who has the muscular neck and growling delivery of a professional wrestler. Engel organizes the missions to Uganda but it is up to younger acolytes to actually go over and do the dirty work. We meet Jesse and Rachelle Digges, a husband-and-wife who pepper nearly every sentence with “Jesus” or the “Lord’s work”. The smiling couple is thin as models and pretty as a picture but radiate an aura of pure toxicity worse than a puff adder’s.

In 1985 Uganda became targeted by a number of these vampire denominations, IHOP being one of the more egregious. Using their pocketbooks, they opened clinics and orphanages (an obvious need given the devastating wars that were visited on the nation) all over the country. Like such outfits from time immemorial, you had to put up with the sermon to get served. Before New York’s Bowery turned into a pricey and trendy neighborhood, missions catered to the alcoholics. You went there for a bowl of soup and put up with a sermon about going to heaven.

In Uganda, the bargain was a lot tougher. In addition to the sermons, you had put up with a sexual-political agenda that was murderous. Uganda was one of the countries in Africa hit hardest by AIDS. George W. Bush worked hand in glove with the evangelicals to make abstinence the tool of choice for preventing AIDS. Condoms were seen as the devil’s work. The net result has been a continued and costly epidemic.

Just as sickening has been a campaign of homophobia that has been endorsed by both the Church of Uganda and the government. The film shows David Kato, a father of the nation’s gay rights movement, speaking out against legislation that would make homosexual behavior punishable by death. For his efforts, he received a death sentence but one carried out by a vigilante who has never been identified.

Against the truly poisonous missionaries and their flunkies inside Uganda, a number of whom have grown wealthy from pay-offs by their American sponsors, there are a couple of men who deserve Nobel Prizes. One is Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, an elderly man who studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He turned to religion after a poisonous snake killed his wife. Late in life he has to deal with a new set of vipers, who have made it impossible for him to carry out his clerical duties and who would probably not stop short of martyring him given the opportunity.

A younger Anglican priest named Kapya Kaoma is also featured in the film, although in Boston rather than Uganda. His courageous stand for the LGBT community in Uganda has made it impossible for him to remain in the country.

There is always the question of what makes a documentary entertaining. For those trying to figure out whether a Saturday night is better spent by watching a powerful film on the colonial conditions of a supposedly postcolonial Uganda or a baseball game on television, I can only tell you that it is very important for Americans to get up to speed on a terrible injustice being meted out to a long-suffering people. I don’t know about you but this description from the press notes is a pretty good description of what awaits you. Entertaining may not be the right word, but compelling surely is.

Perhaps the damage that enforced “traditional” sex roles does to innocent human beings made me ill-disposed to anything with even a fleeting resemblance. It took me a while to warm up to “Cooper & Hemingway: The True Gen” that also opens today at the Quad in New York (and at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on December 3rd). The machismo of these two American icons hit me in the face like a clenched fist at first.

The documentary is a parallel biography of the two men who became best friends. Born in 1898 and 1901 respectively, Hemingway and Cooper were both products of an age in which Theodore Roosevelt was a prototypical male. With his insatiable appetite for big-game hunting and a willingness to risk all sorts of danger, Roosevelt was an obvious model for Hemingway who was into hunting and bullfights. Although too young to fight in WWI, Hemingway signed up as an ambulance driver. After being badly wounded, he told anybody who would listen that the words patriotism and sacrifice were no longer part of his vocabulary.

Cooper was also an outdoorsman but mostly as a function of working on his father’s ranch, where he became an expert horseman. When he ended up in Hollywood, he got a job as a stunt man in silent pictures. When he saw men like Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson “acting”, Cooper decided that he could do that himself. That is essentially how he became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

For reasons that are not fully explained, Hemingway became fixated on Cooper and worked on making a date with him. I should add that the film does not speak in such terms since it assumes that the “bromance” was purely based on admiration for each other’s work as a writer and an actor. While the film interviews a number of Hemingway scholars, none even begins to entertain the possibility that there was a homoerotic dimension. It is too bad that they did not broach this question with Nancy R. Comley, who was one of the co-author of “Hemingway’s Genders: Rereading the Hemingway Text” along with Robert Scholes. In a 1994 discussion of the book in the NY Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote:

Here, in an exploration of transsexuality far more overt in the original manuscript than in the sanitized Scribner’s version — which, the authors say, “does its author a serious disservice” — Hemingway “has positioned his surrogate, David Bourne, in an intolerable double bind: the source of his creativity lies in what for him is the forbidden territory of the feminine.”

The film is a kind of joint project of the Hemingway and Cooper clans, with Patrick Hemingway—the sole surviving son—and Cooper’s daughter Maria serving as consultants and interviewees. Maria is married to Byron Janis, the acclaimed concert pianist, who wrote the film score.

The most interesting parts of the documentary dealt with two important Cooper films. The first was an adaptation of Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, in which the political conservative Gary Cooper played a member of the anti-fascist resistance in the Spanish Civil War. It turns out that Hemingway had Cooper in mind when he developed the character Robert Jordan, long before the film was made.

The other was “High Noon” that was very much contested territory of the Cold War and the witch-hunt. Cooper had been a friendly witness in a HUAC investigation of Communists in Hollywood in 1947 but had not named names. This angered Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s wife, a lot more than it did him. Gellhorn was a famous war correspondent and very much part of the cultural front of the New Deal.

According to the film Cooper’s opposed the attempts to get Carl Foreman fired as screenwriter on “High Noon” when he was identified as a former CP’er, threatening to quit unless Foreman remained part of the team. Since Cooper’s daughter was a consultant, I am not surprised that she decided to leave out some uncomfortable details as found on the TCM website:

During production on High Noon, the House Un-American Activities Committee was creating quite a stir in Hollywood. Thousands of actors, writers, directors, and others in the film industry lost their jobs due to real or imagined affiliations – past or present – with the Communist Party. Screenwriter Carl Foreman was subpoenaed before HUAC during the making of High Noon to answer questions about his own past affiliations with the Party. As was his right, Foreman pleaded the Fifth Amendment. But after he returned to the set of High Noon, Foreman knew his days in Hollywood were numbered. Hedda Hopper and John Wayne both launched public attacks on him in the trades, trying to force him out of the industry. Even Foreman’s most loyal supporters like Fred Zinnemann were threatened because of their association with him. Just like in the film, Gary Cooper seemed to be the last man standing in supporting Carl Foreman. But once threats ensued from MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer and the powerful independent producer Walter Wanger, even Cooper had to relent, fearing an end to his acting career. When the actor called Foreman with the news, the writer sympathized. “I know. Nobody can hold up against this…not even you.”

Cooper’s character in “High Noon” never backed down but the actor turned out to be made of less sturdy material. But then again that’s what you’d expect from someone who makes a career out of pretending to be someone they are not.

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