Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 5, 2019

When Lambs Become Lions; The Elephant Queen

Filed under: Africa,Ecology,Film,poaching — louisproyect @ 5:18 pm

Long before the African elephant became the poster child of wildlife preservation and ecology activists, I became aware of their precarious condition when I saw John Huston’s “Roots of Heaven” in 1958. Based on a Romain Gary novel about a small band of outsiders, as Godard would put it, who conducted nonviolent guerrilla warfare against elephant ivory poachers in French Equatorial Africa, it was the first film I ever saw that gave me a sense of the joy and honor of political resistance.

In my 2014 review of the film, the first time I had seen it since 1958, I wrote:

“The Roots of Heaven” was very much in the spirit of Edward Abbey’s 1975 “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, a novel that for all I know was inspired by “The Roots of Heaven”. While Abbey’s work celebrated sabotage against machines that were destroying the West’s natural habitats, Romain Gary’s heroes were using a monkey wrench against a system that had very little machinery to speak of. That system provided ivory for billiard balls and other ostentatious items, leaving the Africans without industry or wildlife. Indeed, some of the African nationalists who initially hook up with them—mainly for the publicity–view the elephants as an obstacle to progress and would be more than happy to see them sacrificed.

This week I saw two new documentaries filmed in Kenya that rekindled my interest in the preservation of the African elephant. One, titled “When Lambs Become Lions”, opens at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on November 22nd and at the Village East in NYC on December 6th. It is the story of poachers like the kind that were the villains in Huston’s film on one side and the game wardens on the other who have orders to shoot to kill any poacher. What gives the documentary particular interest, beyond the question of the elephant’s survival, is that the two main subjects of the film—a poacher and a cop—are cousins and very close. The other is titled “The Elephant Queen”, a family-oriented portrait of a herd led by Athena, a 50-year old animal ruling over a matriarchy that faces death from a drought rather than from poachers. It premieres on Apple’s new streaming service meant to compete against Netflix and Amazon Prime for $4.99 a month.

The films complement each other. They help to show both the importance of the elephant to the Kenyan ecosphere and the utter waste of a precious living natural resource as a result of the vain consumption of ivory for chintzy carvings sold to the Chinese nouveau riche,

We first meet the poacher in “When Lambs Become Lions”, who is only identified as “X”. He comes from a family that has been poaching for decades, including his father who was killed in the act by park rangers when X was only a child. Not having the stomach to see an elephant killed, he has an underling named Lucas carry out the act using a bow and arrow laced by poison drawn from a frog. It seems likely that these poachers are drawing upon tribal traditions that go back for centuries just like some American Indians who kill whales. However, when such practices become monetized in a society dominated by severe poverty, they are much more capable of leading to extinction.

X’s cousin Asan is a prime example of such precariousness. He and his fellow park rangers haven’t been paid for two months. When a government representative meets with them, they want to know when they will be paid. He shrugs his shoulders and tells them that he has no idea. He adds that if this does not meet their needs, they can find another job.

In a conversation between X and Asan, we learn that the park ranger had also been a poacher earlier in life. We soon begin to understand that both occupations, breaking the law and enforcing it, come with risks. The poacher risks being shot down by a ranger while the ranger has to risk penury because the Kenyan government will not live up to its fiscal responsibilities. Towards the end of the film, we see the new president Uhuru Kenyatta making a speech about the need to save the elephants, topped off by the burning of $150 million worth of tusks. One wonders why he can’t act decisively to keep the police force paid on time, especially since they are probably not making very much money to begin with.

During the film, Anas’s wife gives birth. One wonders how close she came to being denied basic health services because Kenyatta’s Ministry of Health officials stole nearly $50 million of funds allocated to the national free maternity program. In a society dominated by illegality, can anybody be surprised that those on the bottom imitate those at the top?

In an interview with director Jon Kasbe, who spent three years embedded in both X and Asan’s social milieu to gain their trust, he is asked if why the film did not result in a call to action, as is typically the case with documentaries about elephants or rhinoceroses facing extinction because of tusk poaching. He answered:

We hope that the film challenges the existing conversation around poaching. We can’t focus on the preservation of animal life without considering the economic realities and perspectives of the people who have shared land with these animals for a long time. While it is not an overt message in the film, we feel the story can point attention to the lack of proper pay, resources, and training given to wildlife rangers. These rangers are expected to live in the bush 26 days out of the month and oftentimes don’t have basic necessities like boots, clean water, food, or blankets. I spoke to many hunters who said it would be much harder to bribe rangers who had better work conditions. In fact, many poachers claim they would consider switching sides for good, if it meant stable pay and proper resources.

“The Elephant Queen” is a throwback to the heavily anthropomorphized Walt Disney documentaries that I grew up watching and loving as a kid. Athena, the matriarch, is always being described by narrator Chiwetel Ejiofor as “worried” or “sad” about some threat to her family’s well-being. There are also touches that smack of video and audio editing meant to entertain a child or early teen. When a dung beetle narrowly misses being stepped on by an elephant, we hear it squeak in alarm. I am no dung beetle expert but I doubt that any sound like that every came out of a dung-beetle’s mouth. The video editing is less egregious. It is obvious meant to draw out the full drama of an African elephant’s odyssey in search of water and food, even if it sometimes has a “staged” quality.

All that being said, it is a great documentary that like “When Lambs Become Lions” is a labor of love. Co-Directors Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble spent four years in close proximity to Athena’s family in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park that was prime territory for poachers until the Kenya Wildlife Service and conservation partners beefed up security.

Essentially, the film might be subtitled “The ecology of a waterhole” since 90 percent of the film shows the web of life that an elephant and a water source can nurture. The waterholes are home to elephants, bullfrogs, chameleons, dung-beetles, killifish, and terrapins—all of which are captured in minute detail by Mark Deeble’s camera. The elephant defecates and the dung-beetle rushes up to siphon off a ball of the stuff that he can then stash away for future meals. It is absolutely captivating.

Whether or not you decide to become an Apple TV+ subscriber is up to you. I would only urge you to take out a trial membership just so that you and your children—if you have any—can see a powerful film about a creature that was placed on earth not to furnish tusks to the poaching industry but to keep the humble dung-beetle and all other creatures both large and small alive and healthy.

 

January 30, 2019

Steven Mnuchin, Russian oligarchs, and wildlife preservation

Filed under: Africa,conservatism,Ecology — louisproyect @ 5:27 pm

Who will save the elephants? Them?

Today’s NY Times has an article titled “Steven Mnuchin Draws Claims of Conflict of Interest in Decision on Russian Oligarch” that deals with his ties to a Russian oligarch named Len Blavatnik. Despite “divesting” from a film company he owned, Mnuchin was anxious to get Blavatnik to invest in Dune Entertainment. Dune was now owned by Louise Linton as if that qualifies as divestment. This is the Trump regime, after all, Mnuchin’s idiotic wife was infamous for posting a photo on Instagram of herself and Trump’s yes-man in 2017 during a field trip to Fort Knox. She used hashtags to highlight the designer clothing and accessories she wore. When she got lambasted for her ostentatious display, she called her critic “adorably out of touch”, adding that she contributed more to the US economy and paid more in taxes than the woman criticizing her. Nice.

You’d think that Dune Entertainment would make films glorifying the rich, wouldn’t you? As it happens, they were behind “Avatar”, the 3D movie hailed by many critics, including me, as containing an anti-imperialist message. They were also behind “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”, another ostensibly leftist film. I should have italicized ostensibly since Oliver Stone’s film was about as leftist as his series of interviews with Vladimir Putin on Showtime.

What caught my eye was a report on Louise Linton’s attendance at a charity dinner in England. Mentioned below, Deripaska is an oligarch close to Blavatnik who got American polling data from Konstantin Kilimnik, who got it in turn from Paul Manafort. None of this was collusion, of course. Just ask Max Blumenthal.

In mid-January 2018, Ms. Linton attended an exclusive 50-person charity dinner in London that was also attended by Mr. Deripaska.

At the time of the dinner, which was for the anti-poaching organization Space for Giants, the Treasury Department had been directed to put together a report on oligarchs on which it might place sanctions, which would come to include Mr. Deripaska.

A spokesman for Space for Giants said that the guests — including Prince William, the former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, the Russian-British newspaper owner Evgeny Lebedev and a member of the Saudi royal family — were not provided one another’s names before or after the event.

Mr. Sayegh said that Ms. Linton, who donated $50,000 to Space for Giants in 2017, according to its annual report, “was unaware” that Mr. Deripaska was at the dinner that she “never interacted with” the oligarch.

“She recalls sitting next to Prince William at the dinner,” Mr. Sayegh said.

Evgeny Lebedev is the publisher of The Independent, a newspaper that gives a platform to Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn. Their eight-year reporting on Syria tends not to undermine Russian interests there, needless to say.

As for Bill Richardson, he was on the board of Valero Energy and Diamond Offshore Drilling before he became Governor of New Mexico. Valero was heavily involved in refining oil drilled in the Amazon rainforest, while Diamond used asbestos-laden equipment that made its employees terminally ill. Taken to court, Diamond sought indemnification from liability. Richardson resigned from these boards but in keeping with old habits, he now sits on the board of Genie Oil and Gas alongside Dick Cheney, Rupert Murdoch, Larry Summers, and James Woolsey. Genie is heavily invested in Israel Energy Initiatives, a company formed to exploit fracking in Israel. While I remain opposed to the Zionist state, I am just as opposed to fracking there if for no other reason that it degrades the land and water that someday might be returned to the Palestinian people.

Richardson is also on the USA board of Space for Giants, a natural complement to his work with Genie.

As for the Saudi royal family, they might be for saving the lives of elephants but that hardly compensates for the assassination of Khashoggi or the tens of thousands of Yemenis who have died from Saudi bombs and missiles.

Meanwhile, Prince William is a big-game hunter who argues that controlled killing is just what is needed to preserve elephants and other creatures in danger of extinction. I have heard this argument before but would prefer to see Africa protected from imperialist penetration, the main threat to the habitat in which the “Giants” dwell.

Going to the Space for Giants website will give you a good idea of the sort of people who are behind it. The chairman of the UK board is one Peter Bacchus whose accomplishments are trumpeted there:

Peter Bacchus is a senior adviser to the global mining industry, having run Natural Resource Sector investment banking teams at Jefferies, Morgan Stanley, and Citigroup. He pioneered China’s engagements with the global mining community, advising the state-owned China MinMetals on its takeover offer for Noranda in Canada, and listed China Steel, CITIC Resources, and China National Coal on global stock exchanges. Peter has a 20-year track record of advising and raising capital for companies in Africa, having executed deals in a dozen different countries on the continent, including South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, and Angola.

Just the kind of background you’d expect from someone protecting biodiversity in Africa.

Finally, there is the question of what Mnuchin’s wife is doing at a charity dinner to protect wildlife when his boss is doing everything in his power to destroy it in the name of corporate greed. Last July, Trump’s Secretary of the Interior proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act that would allow economic development to go full steam ahead even if the only animals left in the USA were pigeons and rats.

That’s the state of the world today. A charity dinner to raise funds for a wildlife preservation group that depends on the deep pockets of rich people who could care less if elephants went the way of the brontosaurus. Where these large animals go, we are soon to follow unless everything changes.

December 25, 2018

How KPMG and McKinsey ripped off South Africa

Filed under: Africa,capitalist pig — louisproyect @ 7:59 pm

Within the den of corruption known as the African National Congress, there have been two enablers that are marquee names in the world of management consulting and auditing. The first is McKinsey & Company that was founded in 1926 and considered by Vault.com and Consulting.com as the most prestigious in the world. The founder James McKinsey was an accountant by trade who went on to teach at Columbia University. His major work was “Budgetary Control” that conceivably could have been used by the McKinsey consultants in South Africa as toilet paper as they were juggling the books to help Jacob Zuma rip off the nation’s largely Black working class.

McKinsey’s partner-in-crime was KPMG, which stands for Klynveld, Peat, Marwick and Goerdeler. It is one of the big four accounting firms that used to number five until Arthur Anderson was put out of business for juggling Enron’s books. Years ago I was offered a job in their software development group but I received a better offer from another crook: Goldman-Sachs. Like McKinsey, KPMG is the recipient of many awards, including being named best firm in 2017 by the Asia Tax jury in Singapore. In a September 17, 2015 “report on the KPMG website titled “Anti-Bribery and Corruption: Rising to the challenge in the age of globalization”, Roy Muller, the director of KPMG operations in South Africa, stated:

Companies need to take a risk-based approach to the ABC due diligence of vendors. Even where companies indicate that ABC risk is considered, there is often no audit trail or a very poor one to identify high-risk third parties and no clear ranking of them according to the level of risk. Knowing your supplier is often a big challenge in Africa. In certain African countries electronic records are not maintained or are not easily accessible necessitating physical verification of company records.

If KPMG was hired to help South Africa crack down on tax evaders, there should have been another firm to investigate them since most of the work revolved around helping Zuma and his ANC cronies avoid paying taxes. After receiving a lucrative contract, their watchdogs went to sleep. Once considered the nation’s pride, the tax collection agency was left a smoldering wreck.

Not satisfied with the fees it earned for helping Zuma carve out the tax agency’s innards, KPMG also provided audits to the various companies owned by the Gupta brothers who fled South Africa recently to avoid arrest. To give you a sense of how filthy this marquee accounting firm had become, it diverted millions of dollars from a dairy farm project under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture to the pockets of the Gupta family who spent it instead on wedding written off as a “business expense” vetted by KPMG’s auditor.

The wedding that KPMG kickbacks made possible

The South African Times reported on some of the costs in the 30 million Rand wedding (a 1000 Rands is equal to $68, the total spent on the wedding was $2 million):

Beverages seem to have racked up the most costs for South Africans‚ coming in at a staggering R473‚370.41 followed by other general groceries‚ some bought at Makro‚ which cost roughly R190‚000.

It seems that the main dishes the Guptas presented to their guests were vegetables‚ which cost R169‚652.

When it came to fun in the pool‚ four hours of pool noodle and water ball hiring costs totalled R6‚555.09.

The ultimate spoil for the bride and groom and their wedding guests‚ however‚ appears to have been the fireworks display coming in at a cool R310‚801.52.

Two million dollars on a wedding when the average yearly wage in South Africa is $10,800. Meanwhile, KPMG helped keep taxes low for the nouveaux riche who had little interest apparently on what it takes to live on that kind of wage.

Meanwhile, the pot keeps boiling over with KPMG criminality. Just two months ago it revealed that it was instrumental in the collapse of the VBS Bank in South Africa that got a clean bill of health from their auditors in 2017. An official from the nation’s central bank described what happened as “The Great Bank Heist”, with $137 million being siphoned out and into the pockets of various con artists including Sipho Malaba, KPMG’s auditor.

Let’s turn back to the McKinsey group and survey the damage they made in a country I and many on the left viewed as in the vanguard of revolutionary change in the 21st Century.

They were hired to provide management consulting services to Eskom, the state-owned power utility in 2015 worth a cool $700 million. Eskom, which was on the edge of insolvency, had a failing infrastructure including a boiler that blew up and threatened the national power grid.

As was the case with KPMG, the deal involved the Gupta brothers who had cultivated ties with Jacob Zuma, who was the country’s version of Robert Mugabe. This turned out to be an illegal no-bid contract that provided a hefty pay-out to one of the Gupta family’s henchmen. In keeping with corporate norms of “diversity”, McKinsey made sure to staff its Johannesburg office of 250 workers with 60 percent Black South Africans.

McKinsey understood that big bucks could be made in South Africa by selling its services to government agencies that were filled with opportunist ANC members looking for a fast buck. In fact, Eskom was not the first crooked deal that the firm made there.

In 2011, Transnet, the state-owned rail and port agency, was like Eskom looking to modernize. In lining up funding for such an effort, naturally much of the loot could be diverted into the pockets of crooked ANC officials.

One of them was the new head of Transnet, a guy named Brian Molefe, who had been running the country’s public pension fund beforehand. And guess what? Molefe was connected to the Guptas. McKinsey and Molefe decided to buy 1,064 new locomotives, which would be the biggest government purchase in South African history. The NY Times reported that the winning bid came from a Chinese SOE that paid more than $100 million to shell companies tied to a Gupta associate, Salim Essa. So considering the transaction as one made between two of the BRICS anti-imperialist stalwarts, who can complain?

Fresh from this very lucrative deal, Molefe took a new job running Transnet in 2015. McKinsey’s top man assigned to the Eskom account was “a popular partner, Vikas Sagar, a stylish, Porsche-driving fitness buff in his 40s, known for hugging colleagues when the spirit moved him and fiercely charting his own course.”

Meanwhile, McKinsey had a junior partner in the deal, an outfit called Trillian Management Consulting that was a subsidiary of Trillian Capital, rumored to be connected—once again—to the Guptas. Trillian, which was a split-off from Regiments, the aforementioned Gupta firm involved with buying locomotives for Eskom, refused to divulge its ownership to McKinsey. Showing a certain degree of uncertainty about their junior partner, the firm assigned someone to sit down at a computer and do some searching for who was in charge. They learned it was none other than Salim Essa, the Gupta operative. Instead of a clean break that might have jeopardized their deal, they no longer used Trillian as a subcontractor but as an independent partner. As if this was supposed to sanctify a deal that would have functioned as an episode on “The Sopranos”.

The deal fell through after only 8 months but with $100 million being paid out to the two consulting firms—Trillian landed 40 percent of the fees. In a country where the average wage is $10,000 the sight of a McKinsey partner driving to work each day in a Porsche did not sit very well.

Back in 1990, I went to Zambia with a group of Tecnica activists to meet with Thabo Mbeki who would become President succeeding Nelson Mandela in 1999. In the ANC’s exile camp in Lusaka, we had discussions with junior leaders, most of whom appeared to be Communist Party members. In a million years, I never would have dreamed that the ANC would end up as typical African strongmen robbing the country blind in alliances with Western corporations in the habit of describing themselves as dedicated to progress and social justice, just like the bastards at Goldman-Sachs.

In KPMG’s “Global Code of Conduct” handbook, they make it sound like they are Greenpeace or something:

  • We act as responsible corporate citizens, playing an active role in global initiatives relating to climate change, sustainability and international development.
  • We aspire to the ten principles of the UN Global Compact.
  • We encourage good corporate citizenship.
  • We enhance the role of the accounting profession and build trust in the global capital markets. We contribute to a better functioning market economy.
  • We manage our environmental impacts so as to limit them.
  • We work with other businesses, governments and charitable organizations to create stronger communities.

As for McKinsey, they publish a quarterly magazine that promotes the corporate party line. In the most recent issue, they have a focus on their penetration of Africa including an article titled “How to Win in Africa”, appropriate enough considering how South Africa’s poor ended up with the shitty end of the stick.

Structured as a panel discussion, Georges Desvaux, the McKinsey partner who was in charge of business in Africa and who continued to do business with Eskom even after the Gupta ties were revealed, mused on the possibilities. Unlike KPMG, McKinsey partners don’t waste time talking about serving the poor and protecting the environment. Desvaux simply looks at Africa as the next China, where capitalism can create wealth and happiness. He puts it this way:

You also have to look at it and say, this is a long-term play. This is a 20-, 30-years play. It’s the same as China was 30 years ago, India was 15 years ago. Africa is going to be the next pillar of growth because of demographics, because of the natural resources, because of urbanization. And so what you need to do is you need to build the resilience that enables you to manage the risks that are inherent to those three different types of countries that Acha was talking about in order to make sure you are able to go through and weather the storms at some point.

This is straight out of Thomas Friedman’s playbook and about as credible. Considering what McKinsey did in South Africa, the only storm worth talking about was the shit-storm that McKinsey and KPMG created that left millions worse off and the comprador bourgeoisie in control. This is how Africa has been ruled for over a century, so much so that Walter Rodney wrote a book about it titled “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” that might be retitled at this point “How Europe and America Underdeveloped Africa”. (Read Rodney’s book here: http://abahlali.org/files/3295358-walter-rodney.pdf)

 

 

November 28, 2018

Kinshasa Makambo; Piripkura

Filed under: Africa,Brazil — louisproyect @ 11:46 pm

Despite their geographical distance and socioeconomic distinctions, the countries featured in two new documentaries have a lot in common. They are the Democratic Republic of Congo and Brazil, archetypes of the primitive accumulation of capital that Marx described as ones in which the treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement, and murder are floated back to the mother-country and turned into capital. Both countries relied on slavery and forced labor for capital accumulation. Additionally, in the modern age both furnished rubber for the burgeoning automobile industry. Finally, both are homes to vast rainforests that are being exploited for commodity production at the expense of the people who dwell within them. Humanity as a whole will suffer the deepening consequences of climate change as rainforests—the lungs of Mother Earth—get chopped down for the benefit of mining, farming, ranching, timber mills, and the like.

“Kinshasa Makambo”, which opens at the Cinema Village on November 30, focuses on the movement to remove Congo’s President Joseph Kabila from office that began in December 2016 after he pushed for a constitutional amendment to allow a third term—especially his own. After making a deal with the opposition party to abide by existing term limits in exchange for leaving office before the end of 2017, Kabila broke his promise and used the cops to disperse massive demonstrations in Kinshasa, the capital city.

Director Dieudo Hamadi immersed himself in the middle of demonstrations that were not only subject to tear gas attacks but machine gun fire as well. It took remarkable courage for him to risk his life making a film that is obviously sympathetic to the movement’s goals. But he also displayed remarkable objectivity in capturing the frustrations and false steps of young people in the leadership of what amounted to a Congo Spring.

Hamadi trains his camera on three young men: Ben, who has been living in exile in New York, Jean Marie who has just been released from prison where he was tortured continuously, and Christian, a supporter of Étienne Tshisekedi whose Union for Democracy and Social Progress party was Kabila’s main adversary. Eighty-four at the time of the protests, he was regarded by Ben and Jean Marie as too old and too moderate to lead the struggle.

As has been the case with young civil society activists globally, the three find it difficult to pull together a movement capable of toppling the dictatorship. In one telling scene, they argue about their ineffectuality with one youth complaining that they are only a Facebook movement.

I strongly urge my readers in New York to see this film that will help you to understand Congolese politics as well as to get some perspective on the challenges youth-based movements have in confronting dictators like Kabila, Mubarak, Assad, et al, when the traditional instruments of revolutionary change such as trade unions and socialist parties are relatively weak.

Although the film does not give any background on Joseph Kabila (and really doesn’t have to), a few words might help you understand the nature of the conflict. He took office in 2001 after the previous president, his father Laurent-Désiré Kabila, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. When Che Guevara came to the Congo to help build a guerrilla movement to overthrow Mobutu, he hooked up with Kabila who was a Lumumba partisan and the head of a guerrilla group. Che grew frustrated with Kabila’s lack of discipline and returned to Cuba.

Kabila eventually joined forces with Paul Kagame who led the Tutsi militias in Rwanda. After both men took power in their respective countries, they dispensed with the democratic promises they made to the citizenry.

Like the ANC, Kabila came to power in 1997 with socialist pretensions. A year later, Kagame broke ties with him as did Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda who also came to power with hopes that he could break with the African strongman past.

Joseph Kabila’s election for his second term in 2012 was widely regarded as rigged. To get an idea of what motivated the poverty-stricken Congolese people (Kinshasa is a vast slum), the Panama Papers revealed that his twin sister Jaynet Kabila Keratsu, a member of parliament, hired Mossack Fonseca to create a company called Keratsu Holding Limited in the Pacific island of Niue just a few months after her brother became president. Like Putin and Assad, this revelation did not lead to the twin despots resigning, and for identical reasons.

“Piripkura”, a Brazilian film distributed by the indispensable Cinema Libre company, opened at the Laemmle in LA on November 26 and at the Angelika in New York today. (For DVD and VOD options, check the official website.) (http://cinemalibrestudio.com/PiripkuraMovie/)

The Piripkura are a nomadic tribe that lived in Mato Grosso region of Brazil and like many such hunting-and-gathering societies fell victim to prospectors, ranchers, lumberjacks and other capitalist predators who viewed indigenous people as a nuisance standing in the way of “development”. Rita, a Piripkura woman who has left the forest to live in a settlement for indigenous peoples protected by FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation. Except for her, the only surviving Piripkuras are her brother Pakyî and her nephew Tamandua who have remained deep within the forest successfully avoiding the genocidal intruders who do not respect the government’s protection of tribal land just as India protected the Sentinelese islanders who killed the missionary who had entered the island illegally to preach the Gospel. On first blush, the Bible might not seem as inimical to indigenous people’s survival as a shotgun but colonialism tends to use them in tandem.

The first half of the film shows FUNAI official Jair Candor penetrating the forest in search of the two remaining Piripkura. If he can document their survival, their territory will remain protected. Suffice it to say that their discovery is a bittersweet experience. You smile because these diminutive and angelic men, naked as the day they were born, are still alive. You also shed a tear because, like Nishi in California, they are the sole survivors of a tribe that once numbered hundreds in their rainforest sanctuary.

This is a timely film because the new, fascist-like President of Brazil has declared his intention to turn the Amazon rainforest into toothpicks, lawn furniture, ethanol, sugar and the like even if it costs the lives of every indigenous person.

I urge my readers to see the film and spread the word about it since it is essential for deepening your understanding of the stakes of a major struggle that will pit progressive Brazilians like Jair Candor against the murderers sharpening their knives. A global movement is necessary to defend the rainforests and the people who call it home. This film is part of this movement and should be enjoyed and supported by everybody respecting indigenous rights.

September 8, 2018

Two new, problematic African films

Filed under: Africa,Film — louisproyect @ 8:53 pm

Two films opened at art houses in New York yesterday that purport to say something meaningful about African society. I am afraid that they say more about the directors and screenwriters since the message they convey is carefully tailored for Western audiences in general and the film festival/art house circuit in particular. Generally, I cut such films some slack since they are made by creative teams trying sincerely to tell stories about real social and political issues. Rather than rating them as “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, I simply say nothing. To paraphrase my mother, “If you can’t something nice about somebody (in this case a film), say nothing”. I dispense with my mother’s advice on this occasion since both films reflect a creative and political default on a continent undergoing permanent crisis and badly in need of a new Ousmane Sembene.

Playing at Cinema Village, “Five Fingers for Marseilles” seeks to adapt a Sergio Leone film to the hinterlands of South Africa just as his “A Fistful of Dollars” was an attempt to adapt “Yojimbo” to the Old West. Leone’s films were straightforward escapist entertainment while director Michael Matthews and screenwriter Sean Drummond sought to entertain as well as to comment on post-apartheid South Africa. Although the film did put Black South African actors to work, Matthews and Drummond—two white South Africans—made a film that did not come close to achieving the goal set forth by the pair in an interview with “Cinema Escapist”. As Drummond put it:

If you look at the greater theme of the movie, [Marseilles] has never been free and it takes a new generation to fix it. The liberators often hold back from true liberation, which you see here [in South Africa] with the ANC (African National Congress, the party of Mandela who have been the dominant political power in South Africa since 1994). They lost sight of what the goal was – hope for a new generation without the baggage of the past – and a lot of White South Africans feel like Honest John, in this limbo and not knowing what their place is [in Post-Apartheid South Africa].

The Marseilles referred to in the title was an actual place historically. Colonists often named settlements after cities from their country of origin and this was one of them. At the start of the film set in the apartheid era, five young people—four boys and a girl constituted as the five fingers of a fist—have begun taking target practice with slingshots to use against the cops who come to their village to extort payoffs from shopkeepers and generally bully the long-suffering Blacks. When the cops arrest the girl and begin taking her off to jail, Tau, the group’s leader, rides off on his bike to rescue her. Although it is not exactly clear how a youth on a bicycle could have pulled it off, his riding in their path manages to spook the driver so badly that he takes a sharp turn that upends the paddy wagon. Tau then wrests a gun away from one cop and kills both him and his partner. All this takes place in front of the other three boys have caught up with them. They bring the girl back to Marseilles while Tau flees to parts unknown to escape arrest.

Instead of hooking up with Umkhonto we Sizwe, Tau becomes a common thief. The only benefit of living by the sword was that it gave him the skills he needed to return to the village and go to war with the Black gang that is making life unbearable for the dwellers  led by the villainous Sepoko, the “Ghost”. Sepoko and his crew serve the same purpose in this narrative as the gangs in both Leone and Kurosawa’s films—someone to hate. Unfortunately, writer and director neglect the most important part of developing villainous characters: complexity. If they function like the mustache-twirling bad guys in 1930s Tom Mix serials, dramatic intensity will not be achieved.

Tau has returned to Marseilles not to confront evil but perhaps escape from his criminal past. Since his character is exceedingly taciturn, who knows? From the minute he hits town, he is beset by Sepoko’s goons who have plans to take over and see him as a potential obstacle. Like both “Yojimbo” and “High Noon”, the local government is spineless and corrupt–and evidently ANC. Eventually, Tau rounds up a new gang of five that has a climactic gun fight that will remind you of “Gunfight at O.K. Corral”. Matthews and Drummond are obvious film buffs that like Quentin Tarantino enjoy recycling the classics. This tendency is fairly widespread among film school graduates in both the USA and South Africa.

The saving grace of the film is the spectacular landscapes around Lady Gray, the town in the Eastern Cape where it was shot. A couple of months ago I wrote about the Eastern Cape in the context of how desperate poverty was forcing locals to poach rhinos in order to sell the horns on the Chinese black market. Now that would have been a great theme for Matthews and Drummond. I doubt that my review will ever cross their desk but for budding filmmakers who read this blog, a word of advice should be sufficient. Make films that are socially relevant and fresh.

Rungano Nyoni, the director/screenwriter of “I am not a Witch”, was born in Zambia but moved to Wales with her parents when she was 9 years old. On a visit to Zambia a few years ago, Nyoni read about how women were being accused of witchcraft just like Salem in 1693. This gave her the idea to make a film about a young girl who after wandering into a village is accused of being a witch.

This leads a local official to consign her to a kind of leper’s colony where other accused witches, all old enough to be her mother or grandmother, are forced to work in the fields of local farms as virtual slaves. Since they have been found guilty of witchcraft, they must be prevented from escaping. In keeping with the ultra-dry humor of the film, they are not held back by chains but by ribbons extending by hundreds of feet and drawn from spools on a flatbed truck.

The young girl, who is called Shula by the other accused women, is treated differently. Local officials are convinced that she can identify who is a criminal from a large group of accused men, make rain fall on a parched land by casting a spell, and generally perform supernatural feats. Her celebrity grows to the point where she is interviewed on a Zambian talk show although she refuses to talk. Throughout the film, she is totally passive while being passed from one adult to another determined to exploit her non-existent powers. I found it totally impossible to believe that a young girl would not be screaming and kicking on every occasion. Despite the title of the film, she never once cries out “I am not a witch”.

Within five minutes of Googling, I was able to ascertain that the Zambian government has set up camps for women accused of witchcraft but they exist mainly to protect them from ignorant and vengeful villagers. The nearest analogy would be battered women shelters in the USA.

Shockingly, this exploitative film has garnered a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I am about to change that. If you’re up for something like this, you can see “I am not a Witch” at the Quad and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

April 12, 2018

The two degrees of separation between Robert Mercer and Chinese Communism

Filed under: Africa,China,Trump — louisproyect @ 8:58 pm

For more information on the graphic above, go to https://steemit.com/news/@cryptospreads/let-me-introduce-you-to-emerdata-ltd-a-data-processing-company-directed-by-alexander-nix-and-rebekah-mercer-among-other-shady

In yesterday’s NY Times, buried within an article on the problems Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah were having over the Cambridge Analytica fallout, there was startling revelation:

The Facebook scandal has hit just as the Mercers appear to be expanding their business in the world of big data. Public records show that Ms. Mercer, her sister Jennifer and Mr. Nix serve as directors of Emerdata, a British data company formed in August by top executives at Cambridge Analytica and its affiliate, SCL Group, according to British corporate records.

Incorporation documents state that Emerdata specializes in “data processing, hosting and related activities.” An SCL official told Channel 4, a British television station, that Emerdata was established last year to combine SCL and Cambridge under one corporate entity.

Exactly what ambitions the Mercers, who joined the Emerdata board last month, have for the company is unclear. Another Emerdata director, Johnson Ko Chun Shun, is a Hong Kong financier and business partner of Erik Prince — the brother of the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and founder of the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater. Mr. Ko, who declined to comment, is a substantial shareholder and deputy chairman in Mr. Prince’s Africa-focused logistics company, Frontier Services Group.

Mr. Ko and Mr. Prince have links to the Chinese government: Another major Frontier investor is Citic, a state-owned Chinese financial conglomerate that for decades has employed the sons and daughters of the Communist Party’s elite families.

So, we can assume that this new company Emerdata is just a new name for the SCL Group, a British corporation that was the mothership for its American offshoot Cambridge Analytica. The NY Times states that Emerdata’s ambitions are unclear but you have to assume that it will have the same nefarious aims as the corporations under the big umbrella it provides, namely to use powerful computer systems to analyze both public and private data in order to promote crooked reactionaries like Donald Trump. While some leftists scoff at the idea that Cambridge Analytica was anything but smoke and mirrors, the idea that this kind of operation is going on in the USA or anywhere else is a threat to democracy just as much as the ability of the Mercers, the Koch brothers and any other plutocrat to pour millions into election campaigns in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United.

If you need any other proof of Emerdata’s criminal tendencies, just consider the connections to Erik Prince. Prince’s Blackwater was a private security firm that was involved with the murder of 15 Iraqi civilians in 2007. He is also under investigation for serving as Trump’s envoy in a meeting with Putin’s representative on Seychelles island in January 2017. The Intercept reported:

The identity of the Russian individual was not disclosed, but on January 11, a Turkish-owned Bombardier Global 5000 charter plane flew Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, to the Seychelles, flight records obtained by The Intercept show. Dmitriev’s plane was an unscheduled charter flight and flew to the island with two other Russian individuals, both women. The RDIF is a $10 billion sovereign wealth fund created by the Russian government in 2011.

Prince is not on the Emerdata’s board but his associate Johnson Ko Chun Shun is. Ko and Prince are the prime movers in Frontier Services Group (FSG), an innocent-sounding name for a company that functions as China’s Blackwater in Africa. To keep the restless natives at bay, Prince and Ko’s firm will serve as a subcontractor lining up goons to keep Chinese mines, oil drilling, plantations, etc. safe.

The biggest Frontier Services Group shareholder is the Citic Group, an investment fund owned and controlled by the People’s Republic of China. In addition to its Africa operations, FSG has signed contracts to support China’s One Belt, One Road initiative including building a series of bases in China’s Xinjiang Province, where the restless Uighur natives have to be kept in line as Communist “development” goes full steam ahead. I guess you all know what the One Belt, One Road initiative is all about. That’s China’s bid to defeat the cruel, imperialist West. And who better to smooth the path in front of the initiative is Erik Prince who is a past master of killing restless natives.

Most of FSG’s business is in South Sudan, however. That’s where China’s new colonial aspirations reach highest. In order to protect its oil drilling sites from attacks by militias representing tribes hostile to the state’s partnership with China, the FSG can be a life-saver for superprofits.

For a comprehensive report on FSG, I recommend the 10 page report from the Oakland Institute. It states:

Prince has spent most of his post-Blackwater years building rapidly deployable logistics, intelligence, and security capacity. His new logistics company, Frontier Services Group (FSG), has outposts in Africa, the Mediterranean region, and will soon be present in Central Asia.

Before launching FSG, Prince began assembling logistics assets in Africa to back his financial investments within his equity fund FRG. The fund advertised to external investors its ability to “leverage unique relationships and experienced management, as well as existing security and logistics capabilities,”78 allegedly a competitive advantage to access untapped subsoil resources in risky and infrastructure-lacking areas of Africa.

With FRG’s first venture, Prince secured an agreement to build an oil refinery in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State, in the locality of Thiangrial. This was a project with heavy logistics and security needs, for which Prince tapped his network of private security connections. A long time colleague, John “JP” Palen, was asked to help coordinate plane transportation for surveys and oil sampling at the site. Palen, a former US Air Force pilot, worked at Prince’s Presidential Airways from 2006 to 201081 before being employed at Transerv, an aircraft company linked to Prince’s R2 and PMPF projects.

Okay, so what’s going on here?

The most reactionary elements in American politics—the Mercers and Erik Prince—are in a alliance with the Chinese Communist Party to protect its assets in Africa and anything that stands in the way of its One Belt, One Road initiative that unfortunately some have mistakenly viewed as a big step forward toward a multipolar world. Perhaps it was easier to sustain illusions in BRICS, the One Belt, One Road initiative, and Chinese “communism” at a time before China became much more of an obvious colonizing presence in Africa. And for those sitting on the fence, these ties to Robert Mercer and Erik Prince should dispel all illusions.

August 21, 2017

Mama Africa

Filed under: Africa,Film,music — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

If “Mama Africa”, the fine new documentary about Mariam Makeba, was nothing more than a compilation of her performances going back to the songs she sang in Lionel Rogosin’s groundbreaking anti-apartheid film “Come Back, Africa” in 1959, it would be well worth seeing. But it is more than that. It is a portrait of a leading Pan-African activist who deserves to be ranked alongside Paul Robeson as a tireless fighter for human rights for all people.

In a way, Rogosin’s film launched her career as a freedom fighter since everybody involved with it understood the risks they were taking. She only appeared briefly on stage, and sang two songs lasting four minutes but made such an impression on those who saw “Come Back, Africa” that she was invited to perform in London and New York, where she met and impressed Harry Belafonte who had by now established himself as an outspoken opponent of Jim Crow. He helped her get her first recordings made, “The Click Song” that was based on the highly percussive Xhosa language and “Pata Pata”, a dance tune she considered superficial.

One of the things that struck me about early her professional history is how much it overlapped with the folk music revival that to a large extent relied on great musicians like Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte who had been part of the Communist Party’s cultural milieu. Songs like “Wimowe” (The Lion Sleeps at Night) were often performed side-by-side with “This Land is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome”. By 1959, the battle against Jim Crow in the South and apartheid in South Africa were closely linked in the minds of young people like Joan Baez or Peter, Paul and Mary.

Mariam Makeba was not in South Africa when the Sharpesville Massacre occurred a year later. She was anxious to attend the funerals of two family members were victims of the racist cops but discovered that her passport had been revoked. Like Paul Robeson, she had become an unperson. Because of the massacre and the violation of her right to travel freely, Makeba became even more outspoken and dedicated to eliminating apartheid.

Indeed, the film is social history as well as a personal history of Marian Makeba. As the Civil Rights movement gave way to the Black Power Movement, Makeba’s path crossed that of Stokely Carmichael, the leader of SNCC who had coined the term Black Power and become a leading Black nationalist and afterwards a Pan-Africanist who adopted the name Kwame Ture. After Carmichael and Makeba married in 1968, her songs took on a sharper political edge and were performed at rallies in the USA and Africa.

The film benefits from interviews with some of the key people who knew her as fellow musicians or activists. We hear from her bass player and drummer from the early 60s who offer thoughtful assessments of her as a person and a musician. She was beloved by everybody, especially for her readiness to prepare an elaborate meal on a moment’s notice. We also hear from her grandson Nelson Lumuba Lee who fleshes her out as a personality. He states that the accidental death of another grandson at a young age from accidentally swallowing some pills left her disconsolate and probably made performing and activism more difficult, especially as she grew older.

Makeba was able to return to a free South Africa in 1990 and became an enormous influence on younger female vocalists who pay tribute to her in the film. Indeed, it is hard to exaggerate the impact she had on African music and politics. It must be said, however, that Hugh Masekela, her most famous collaborator has a dim view of South Africa today, describing it as a neo-colonial state dominated from the West and the East.

“Mama Africa” was directed by Mika Kaurismäki, the older brother of Aki Kaurismäki—my favorite director. Mika directed a wonderful film titled “The Girl King” that I also recommend highly. It is the story of the lesbian Queen of Sweden who was tutored by Descartes—no that is not fiction! It can be seen for a mere $1.99 on Youtube.

Unfortunately, a disabled Macbook prevented me from posting this review until today but I urge my readers to try to attend a screening as indicated below:

Parkway Theater, Baltimore – 8/18 to 8/24

Austin Film Society – 9/23 & 9/30

Virginia Film Festival – 11/10 & 11/12

IFC, New York City –1/19/18 to 1/25/18

Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, Toronto – 2/27/18

I would also advise checking the distributor’s website to check about other screenings.

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

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