Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 14, 2016

Three documentaries of note

Filed under: drugs,Fascism,Film,Jewish question,prison — louisproyect @ 8:25 pm

If there is any justification at this point for continuing a Netflix membership, it is the opportunity to see Werner Herzog’s new documentary about volcanoes on October 28th, which will be opening the same day at the IFC Center in New York. Titled “Inside the Inferno” and produced by Netflix itself, it is echt Herzog and qualified on that basis alone for putting it on your must-see list.

The film is co-directed by Clive Oppenheimer who is one of the world’s leading volcanologists and a constant presence throughout the film as he visits villages near major active volcanoes around the world, including Vanuatu, a group of islands about 1000 miles east of northern Australia. Oppenheimer alternates with Herzog in interviewing village elders who maintain prescientific notions about spirits dwelling within the volcanoes. The co-directors have an uncanny ability to accept those beliefs in a respectful manner.

Speaking in terms of auteur theory, this documentary is obviously connected with Herzog’s major preoccupation—living at the edges of society and often in the face of some peril. If his “Grizzly Man” was an object lesson in getting too close to bears in the Alaskan wilderness, his latest is a reminder that scientists like Oppenheimer take as big a chance with their lives in their own pursuit.

In one of the more gripping scenes, we see the final moments of husband-and-wife volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft as an avalanche of lava comes pouring off Mount Unzen in Japan toward them on June 3, 1991. Herzog took considerable risks in making the film himself, at one point filming on the precipice of an active volcano that erupted as the cameras rolled, thankfully beneath life-threatening levels. As you would expect, the cinematography is breathtaking. If there is anything that evokes Inferno, it is the roiling crimson flames in the bowels of an active volcano.

The good Werner Herzog relates to volcanologists in more or less the same manner as he did to the computer scientists in “Lo and Behold” that pioneered the Internet. His interest is less in how volcanoes came to be in scientific terms but how they feel about what they are doing. With his raspy voice and quizzical tone, he is perfectly suited to playing the role of an interlocutor seeking deeper wisdom about the human condition.

As a perfect complement to its dazzling cinematography, “Into the Inferno” features a perfectly matched soundtrack consisting mostly of liturgical chorale music, including from the Russian Orthodoxy. When you hear “Dies Irae” as lava pours down the side of a mountain, the hair on your arms will stand up.

In a perfect Herzogian moment, the crew goes to North Korea where they film military cadets marching and singing on their way to Mount Paektu, an object of veneration by the family dynasty as a base for the revolution. When Herzog asks a North Korean volcanologist in his pricelessly raspy voice about the significance of the volcano, he replies in what can only be described as a quasi-religious tribute to the rulers of this sad but intriguing nation. You can’t escape feeling that there is not much difference between him and the chieftains in Vanuatu.

In the press notes, there’s an exchange with the 74-year old director who shows no sign of slowing down. It is about as revealing a look into his artistic psyche that can be imagined.

You recently said of yourself, “I’m a curious person. That’s the key to everything.” Given that you could have made a film about anything at this point in your career, why volcanoes?

There’s a long prehistory. In 1976, I made a film on La Soufrière, the volcano in the Caribbean that was about to explode. At that time I was not so interested in the volcano itself but in the attitude of one single poor farmer who had refused to be evacuated. Seventy-five thousand people were evacuated but he stayed behind. He was somehow defiant and had a different attitude toward death. And then the second part of the prehistory is the film I made ten years ago, Encounters at the End of the World. I was in Antarctica and up on Mount Erebus and that’s where I ran into Clive Oppenheimer, and we became friends and kept talking that we should do a film about volcanoes. And also what pushed it a little bit was his book Eruptions That Shook the World. So it was step by step into this film.

What was the most interesting thing about volcanoes that you learned as you were making Into the Inferno?

Scientifically, that the atmosphere that we are breathing was created by volcanoes. As far as I understand, the earth’s atmosphere was methane and it changed into what we are breathing today because of volcanic activity.

The most surprising thing about volcanoes?

That they’re more unpredictable than I would admit. We were in some danger in a volcano in Indonesia, which exploded only a few days after we were filming there, and seven farmers were killed pretty much where we had had our camera.

How did you feel when you heard that that had happened just a week after you’d been there?

What can I say? I just knew we were lucky. When you are working with the camera you believe you are safe, as if the camera is a perfect shield against all sorts of mishaps.

When I got the press release for “Trezoros”, the Ladino word for treasures, I hesitated about getting a screener since I tend to avoid holocaust type films:

Imagine a vibrant community of people getting along for centuries – Christians, Jews, others, – until the onset of WW II. Even under the Italians, the Greek Jews of Kastoria enjoyed a simple life. However, once the Italians left and the Nazi’s took over, Kastoria’s Jews became victim to the same fate as many of their fellow Jews in Eastern Europe. Of the 1000 Jews who were rounded up by the Nazi’s, only 26 returned and it marked the end of this community. Director Larry Russo’s family was impacted by this and his is one of many stories in this film.

Thank goodness I overcame my doubts that were largely influenced by the Spielbergian idiom that such films, either narrative or documentary, usually adopt because of their manipulative predictability.

What makes “Trezoros” so exceptional is its ability to tell the story of how Jews and Christians lived in complete harmony in Kastoria, Greece in the years before fascism. Kastoria was a small city near the border with Albania that incorporated the ethos of the Ottoman Empire that left its stamp on Greece from the period of its rule from the mid-15th century to the formation of the modern Greek state in 1832. Despite its imperial grip on subject peoples, the Ottoman rulers were much less interested in imposing religious and cultural orthodoxy as was the case with the British or lesser European colonial powers. In practice this meant that Christians, Jews and Muslims could live together in harmony as Mark Mazower pointed out in his “Salonica, City of Ghosts”.

Kastoria was virtually a pint-sized version of Salonica. Christians and Jews got along famously as the elderly Greek Orthodox citizens and Jewish survivors attested to director Larry Russo, who is descended from a Jewish family in Kastoria. The Jews of Kastoria were mostly shopkeepers or in the fur business, in other words the same kind of occupations they held in most of Europe with one difference, however. The Kastorian Jews came as a result of the Spanish expulsion during the Inquisition when they streamed eastward toward nations that were far more tolerant, especially those ruled by the Ottomans. These so-called Sephardic Jews did not speak Yiddish. Their native tongue was Ladino, a language close to Spanish that was written in Hebrew letters.

In a stunning display of vintage photographs and home movies that Russo dug up, we are brought back to Kastoria in its halcyon days. It brings Greece of the early 20th century alive in a way that I could not have dreamed possible. For example, we not only learn that Kastoria relied on a town crier, who happened to be a long-bearded Jew, but see him on his daily rounds. Amazing.

The harmony of Kastoria was broken by the rise of fascism but ironically not under Italian rule. Interviewees give the Italian fascist troops credit for not victimizing Jews. However, after Mussolini was overthrown, the Nazis took control of Greece including Kastoria. As this was the period following the Wannsee Conference with its “Final Solution”, it did not take long for the thousand Jews of Kastoria to be rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Among the survivors, we hear from brother and sister Beni Elias and his sister Lena Russo who is the director’s aunt. They speak with great dignity and emotion, not once forgetting how much they loved Kastoria.

“Trezoros” opens today at the Cinema Village in New York and I recommend it highly.

Finally, there is “Incarcerating US”, a documentary about how the “war on drugs” has resulted in a massive expansion of the prison population. It is available from Bullfrog Films, a distributor of leading edge documentaries and narrative films that makes them available at reduced rates to activist and grassroots groups. It can also be seen on VOD for $9.99 from the film’s website.

“Incarcerating US” would have the same audience as Ava Duvernay’s highly regarded “The Thirteenth” that premiered recently on Netflix. While her film is focused on the racism and economic exploitation inherent in the prison-industrial system, this one takes aim at the mandatory minimum sentences that were the legacy of a vain attempt to make America “drug-free”. As Richard Van Wickler, the astonishingly enlightened Superintendent of the Cheshire County (NH) Department of Corrections, points out, the net effect of the crackdown is only to encourage more crime as was the case during Prohibition. Without a ban on alcohol, there would be no Al Capone. Without a ban on drugs, there would be no Mexican drug cartels nor heroin overdoses that have become an epidemic in the USA. And most of all, there would be no victims of 5-year and upwards mandatory minimum sentences such as Tracy Syphax, an African-American man whose story about imprisonment and eventual redemption speaks volumes about the insanity of our drug laws.

Directed by Regan Hines, whose extremely powerful film is his first, it benefits from a very astute cast of interviewees consisting of critics of the drug laws and their victims. Among the critics is Eric Sterling, who as a young lawyer helped to draft the mandatory minimum laws in the 1980s. So shocked was he by how they victimized casual users, he resolved to overturn the laws, one of the primary goals of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation that he founded in 1989. We also hear from Julie Stewart who founded Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) in 1991.

On the FAMM website, Stewart describes how she decided to become an activist. In 1990, she was public affairs director at the Cato Institute (a libertarian outfit that unlike most on the right is an opponent of the draconian drug laws) when her brother was arrested for growing marijuana in Washington State. The website states: “He pled guilty, and — though this was his first offense — was sentenced by a judge to five years in federal prison without parole. The judge criticized the punishment as too harsh, but said he had no choice because his hands were tied by the mandatory minimum sentencing laws Congress had passed.”

This essentially is what happened to my cousin Joel Proyect who spent close to five years in prison even though he never had been arrested ever before and even though he was the president of the Sullivan County Bar Association in August 1991, when the cops stormed the home he had built with his own hands in Parksville, NY. After he was sent to prison, I visited him on several occasions and used to keep up a steady correspondence. Here’s how the NY Times reported on his case nearly a year later:

NY Times, July 12, 1992
On Sunday; Tend a Garden, Pay the Price: A Legal Story

SOUTH FALLSBURG, N.Y.— By all accounts, Joel Proyect is an enormously talented, humane man, a small-town lawyer who gave a great deal. He’s a recent vice president of the bar association, a legal guardian for children in family court.

He took court-assigned clients who could not afford lawyers. “One would think he is being paid thousands of dollars the way he represents indigent people,” said Tim Havas, a legal aid lawyer. When his neighbors, the Friedlanders, had a baby, Mr. Proyect plowed their driveway without being asked, so they could get home safely. He shoveled his pond so nearby kids could skate, though he doesn’t.

After he was divorced, Mr. Proyect, 50 years old, raised his two daughters until they went off to college. He banned TV and made the girls speak half an hour of French to him each day (he also speaks Spanish and Russian). He taught law at a local prison and community college.

It took nine years, but he built his magnificent wood and stone house himself, hammering every nail. He heats it with wood from his 30 acres, makes jam with blueberries from his bushes. He grew his own pot.

He’d smoked marijuana for 20 years. It was well known. “Everyone in the court system knew, judges, people at the bar association — they’d tease me,” he said. “I grew for myself and my girlfriend. If you came to my house I’d offer you beer or a joint, depending on your tastes.”

Last August, after scouting with helicopters, Federal agents raided Mr. Proyect. He thinks that the raid was initiated by a local police officer he’d had a run-in with in court.

You didn’t have to be Elliot Ness to catch Joel Proyect with pot. “They found some plants and I showed them where the rest were,” said Mr. Proyect. “I knew I was in trouble, but I didn’t think it was that serious.” Growing pot is a misdemeanor under state law. There’s no evidence he ever sold any of it. But he was charged under Federal law. His house and 30 acres were forfeited to the government. On May 29 he was sentenced to five years in prison.

No one, not even the prosecutor, will say this is fair. Judge Vincent Broderick of Federal District Court said his hands were tied by a 1988 mandatory sentencing law. He says he hopes he is reversed on appeal.

Law-enforcement agents don’t have the resources to catch most of the truly venal drug offenders. So what the Government has done is to invoke strict mandatory sentences to serve as a deterrent. The law says anyone growing more than 100 pot plants serves a minimum of five years. Agents, with Mr. Proyect’s aid, found 110.

No reporters attended the sentencing, but the judge’s anger is plain from the transcript: “I’m very unhappy about imposing this sentence. I frankly would not impose it if I saw any way that, consistent with my oath, I could impose a different sentence.”

“I’ve had people before me constantly during the last three years charged with distributing dangerous drugs on the streets,” he said, “that I’ve been able to sentence to far less than I’m sentencing Mr. Proyect to.” The judge, a former New York City Police Commissioner, called mandatory sentencing “a vice” and allowed Mr. Proyect to remain free, pending appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Second District. “I would be delighted,” the judge said, “to have my brothers on the 17th floor of the Manhattan courthouse find I was in error.”

Ronald DePetris, Mr. Proyect’s lawyer, said that in 25 years, “this is the most unjust sentence I’ve seen.” Kerry Lawrence, the prosecutor, said the law required it. But did the sentence fit the crime? “No comment,” he said.

Mr. Proyect is using his freedom to make money. His legal fees are $115,000. The other day he came out of a bail hearing for a client charged with armed bank robbery. “The prosecutor’s offering him a plea of four years,” said Mr. Proyect. “He’ll serve less time than I will.”

He drove home. The Government is scheduled to evict him in two weeks. He has the option to buy his house back from the United States for $170,000 and says if he got a short sentence and is allowed to practice when he comes out, he could raise the money.

He says he used to smoke five joints a day. Now he has that many drinks. Like many of his generation who inhaled, Mr. Proyect believes pot is a safer drug than alcohol and misses it. He is angry that in a conservative era, when government is supposed to stay out of people’s personal lives, his has been invaded, though he harmed no one. “If I knew I was coming back to this,” he said, standing on his deck, “it wouldn’t be so bad. Everything you see is mine. I own that hill. I own that hill. Isn’t it beautiful? I say it without conceit. I didn’t build it, God did that.”

This fall, the brothers on the 17th floor will decide if Joel Proyect deserves this.


October 7, 2016

Films from Iraq, Syria and Iran

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:46 pm

Over the years I have seen many documentaries about Third World countries that were invaded by the American military or its proxies such as the Nicaraguan contras but none comes close to achieving the artistic and political power of Abbas Fahdel’s “Homeland (Iraq Year Zero)” that is distinguished by the insights of a brilliant director born in Babylon, Iraq. It consists of two parts, the first filmed in his country on the eve of the American invasion and the second in the first few months after it had occurred. Together they add up to 334 minutes and I can only say that I hungered to watch parts 3 and 4 if they existed. Unlike any other films in this genre, this is the very first—at least that I am familiar with—that is made by someone who is a native of the land suffering from invasion and occupation.

By analogy, think of what might have been possible if a Vietnamese director had access to relatively inexpensive digital cameras in 1965 and interviewed the peasants who had been forced into strategic hamlets as well as the intellectuals in Saigon who could speak for the country’s nationalist yearnings. But also imagine that the director had included not just the suffering of his countrymen but also their culture, their humor and the values that had sustained them for millennia. Fahdel’s friends and relatives, who had been victimized both by Saddam and by the American occupation, are the voice of the Iraqis we have never heard. They are cultured, wise and sardonically witty about the conditions that have been forced on them. Among them is the star of the movie, the director’s 12-year-old nephew Haidar who is wise beyond his years and appealing enough to be featured in a Kiarostami film.

I suspect that the title of the film has the same irony-tinged purpose as Nate Parker’s “Birth of a Nation” that turned the tables on D.W. Griffith’s racist epic. With the Islamophobic TV series “Homeland” and the Department of Homeland Security that supposedly protects us from al-Qaeda, Fahdel reminds us that Iraqis were and are the ones truly committed to the freedom and dignity of their own nation. With 9/11 being made an excuse for the invasion of Iraq, we are absolutely required to understand how Iraqis lived and what they believed. Sitting through part one of “Homeland (Iraq Year Zero)” will allow you to get past the stereotypes and see how people lived in Baghdad in their daily lives under extraordinary conditions.

You see the extended Fahdel family preparing for the invasion as if it were a category 4 hurricane like the one that just plowed through the Caribbean. They put tape on the windows, store food and medicine and even go so far as to dig a well in their back yard in case the water stops flowing to their home. We see Haidar doing his shift on the hand-pump when his older sister arrives home from classes at the local college. He scolds her for not relieving him but she only smiles in response since he is obviously accustomed to giving her a hard time—affectionately.

While he is on the job making the sure the family has a supply of water, a group of girls practice using diapers as a gas mask. They have heard that if you put charcoal in the diapers, it will allow you to stave off an American poison gas attack. All the while they laugh at each other wearing diapers on their faces.

A day trip to Hit, a small city on the Euphrates river, introduces us to a middle-aged man who was born a Jew but converted to Islam in 1980 because his Muslim friends and neighbors treated him with affection and respect. He was so enthusiastic about converting that he persuaded a number of Jews to convert as well. One of the local Muslim men who is chatting with Fahdel says that he relies on the former Jew for advice on how to pray.

While much of part one consists of memorable scenes such as these, there are also many scenes of the city’s vibrant street life with its assortment of food bazaars and used book sellers in the Baghdad neighborhood favored by intellectuals and bohemians—those at least who have not been thrown in prison by Saddam. Conversations with the street vendors fills in the social fabric of a city whose immense visual appeal is captured by the director’s camera.

Throughout part one we get a sense of how detached Saddam Hussein was from reality. The Fahdels sit in their living room watching the news each evening as the clock is ticking toward Zero Hour. There are constant references to “our Father Saddam”, a cult figure whose grandiosity makes the North Korean Kim dynasty look modest by comparison.

In part two we see the devastation wrought by the American invasion that for most people living in Baghdad represents a total breakdown of law and order. Despite the impression we have of iron control of the streets by the American military, it is much more like a dystopian urban nightmare where criminals have free rein. If some of you may remember how Donald Rumsfeld shrugged his shoulders at the looting of museums, there is another aspect that was never reported on in the American media.

Saddam had emptied the prisons before the invasion to shore up public support for the regime but never bothered to distinguish between those who were political dissidents and those who were common thieves. It was the thieves, not the political dissidents, who ruled Baghdad in year zero. Carjacking and burglaries were such a frequent occurrence that law-abiding citizens armed themselves with AK-47s to protect their families. Cab drivers were preyed upon both for any cash they had on hand and for their cars that could be used for getaways in robberies. Fahdel’s relatives say that even though Saddam was a monster, the streets were safe.

If you were not the victim of a carjacker, you had to worry about an American military that viewed every Baghdad as a potential threat. Fahdel speaks to a number of families whose houses have been destroyed by tanks or helicopters even though they were not part of the resistance and just as often owned not a single weapon.

With his ties to the city’s cultural elite, we are taken on a tour of the trail of destruction the invasion left. One relative worked for state radio for 35 years. He and Fahdel survey the wreckage of the building that was responsible for airing nothing but music and news. What kind of “advanced” society would wreak such havoc? A man who worked as an actor the in film industry for many years takes Fahdel to the state film institute that has been blasted by gunfire and bombs. Tripods have been melted to the floor and film cans are strewn about the floor. The actor holds up a half-destroyed reel of film and remarks that its loss is a loss of the country’s history. When you destroy its culture, you not only lose the past but the possibility of building a better future.

The cultural and intellectual elite of Baghdad figure as the film’s narrators since it is they who understood how the country had been misruled for decades. One man describes the elite as schizophrenic since they verbally praised Saddam at work in order to not only keep their job but avoid being “disappeared”. It was only at home that they were able to pour out their grievances. “Homeland (Iraq Year Zero)” is their film and we are deeply grateful to Abbas Fahdel for giving them a voice.

“Homeland (Iraq Year Zero)” opened yesterday at the Anthology of Film Archives in NYC and it is the one film that you should see this year since it is not only a masterpiece about the particular tragedy of Iraq but also an antidote to the Islamophobia that not only has infected the Republican Party but that casts a pall across the political landscape in general. With Hillary Clinton having voted for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is essential to listen to the heart and soul of a Muslim nation. I was struck by the similarities of the Baghdad wise men and women in Fahdel’s film with so many of the Syrians who were dominant in the early days of the revolution. They, like Fahdel’s friends and relatives, are the best hope for the Middle East.

Opening today at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, “Theo Who Lived” is the story of Theo Padnos, a free-lance reporter who was abducted by al-Nusra in Syria in October 2012 and held captive for two years under abominable conditions. The film consists of him recounting the life he led in various improvised jails with daily beatings and accusations of being a CIA agent.

Mostly, Padnos blames himself for allowing this to happen since he trusted a couple of men he met in Istanbul who assured him that they would sneak him into Syria to interview the FSA. It turned out that they were al-Nusra supporters who had neither his interests nor the revolution’s at heart. While al-Nusra, the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, was by no stretch of the imagination as savage as ISIS, you are left with the impression that they are useless to the revolution except for their fighting skills that is a double-edged sword. Every feat they carry out in battle only gives them the credibility they need to suppress other currents in the struggle and make unity across class lines more difficult.

While most of the film focuses on Padnos’s ordeal (he was released after two years when Qatar arranged a prisoner exchange no doubt enhanced by the captive’s ability to bind with al-Nusra’s leader who apparently became convinced that he was no spy), you find yourself wondering what made him tick.

The Wikipedia on Padnos mentions that he studied Islam in Yemen and Damascus, has a PhD in literature from the U. of Mass., Amherst and is fluent in Arabic and Russian. He wrote a book titled “Underground Muslim” about his studies at the Salafist academy in Yemen. One can only say that if other reporters had such a background, the media would be a lot more trustworthy when it comes to the Middle East.

If you are not in a position to see “Theo Who Lived”, you at least owe it to yourself to read the fascinating article by Padnos that appeared in the NY Times shortly after he was released by al-Nusra. This description of the bonds that were developing with the group’s leader should give you an idea of how it was his own native abilities that saved his life rather than a ransom that the USA never would have supplied:

Suddenly I found myself standing at the edge of the desert with the Man of Learning [al-Nusra’s leader]. He gave me a suit of jihadi clothing, told me to blend in with his fighters and promised me that once we got to Dara’a, a city near the eastern edge of the Golan Heights, he would send me back to my family.

We traveled in the same car. He talked to me about the difficulties of being a mujahid, or Fighter on the Straight Path of God. One afternoon early in our voyage, he told me that the world misunderstood him. “It must be difficult when the whole world wants to kill you,” I said. “Plus all the problems now with ISIS. And Bashar al-Assad probably wants to kill you, too.”

“Yes,” he said. “It’s true. But ISIS are the worst. They have made me very sad.”

On March 1, 2016 Nabil Maleh died at the age of 79 from lung cancer. Described in the NY Times obituary as a “giant of Syrian cinema”, this was his country’s counterpart to the men and women featured in Fahdel’s film, a man forced into exile in 2011 for his support for the revolution. The Times obit states:

His 2006 documentary “The Road to Damascus” was prescient in examining conditions that led to the 2011 uprising. In it, Mr. Maleh’s crew travels around the country interviewing ordinary Syrians, who discuss the poverty and corruption that had resulted in an exodus from rural Syria to Damascus, with job seekers and their families settling in ramshackle housing on the city’s outskirts. The film was never shown in Syria.

That film is not available online but you can see his 1972 film “The Leopard” about a poor farmer who stages a virtual one-man revolt against the feudal aristocracy that still ruled Syria as late as 1946, the year in which the events that inspired the film took place. A Jadaliyya article on Maleh discusses the film:

Released in 1972, The Leopard captivated Arab audiences and introduced Syrian cinema to the global stage. The film is set in 1946, as the French Mandate forces scaled back their presence, and local feudal landlords, aghas, took their place as oppressors. The Leopard opens with, and periodically returns to, a close-up of the protagonist’s scowling face set against a raging sea, as a haunting voice-over draws on Syrian folk ballads. In the second scene, shot in silhouette, Abu ‘Ali’s wife, Shafiqa, asks why he has acquired a gun, now that the French have gone. Abu ‘Ali avoids the question, but the answer quickly emerges: Syrian landlords, backed by soldiers, demand more tribute than the peasants can afford after a bad harvest. The hero resists, is arrested and beaten, but escapes to the hills, staging guerilla attacks against the new forces of tyranny. Comrades from his days fighting the French try to join him, but Abu ‘Ali turns them away. This is his fight alone.

While the native bourgeoisie took over for the French eventually, the oppressive conditions in the countryside never came to an end. It was certainly Maleh’s understanding of these realities in 1972 and in 2011 that forced him into exile.

Finally, there is “Under the Shadow” that also opened today at the IFC Center in NYC. With an Iranian director and cast, it is virtually an Iranian film although its subject matter made it impossible to be produced in the Islamic Republic since it is a horror movie with affinities to Japanese and Korean films about haunted houses but more specifically evokes the nifty Australian film “The Babadook”.

But the real horror was the war between Iraq and Iran that serves as the backdrop for the film. Living in Tehran under constant threat of missile attacks from Iraq, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) are getting ready to take refuge in the countryside while her husband is away serving as a medic on the front lines.

As that day draws near, things start to get weird in the apartment after Dorsa loses her favorite doll. Things start going bump in the night and Dorsa develops a malevolent streak that frightens her mother.

The cause, according to a superstitious neighbor, is an evil spirit called a Djinn that was raised by an Iraqi missile that landed on a floor above them. Unlike most horror films, there is very little violence or shock effects. It is mostly about creating a strange atmosphere that hearkens back to early horror films such as Jacques Tourneur’s “Cat People”.

In the press notes director Babak Anvari relates the inspiration for the film:

I was born and raised in Tehran in the early years of the revolution and during the Iran-Iraq war it was mandatory for my father to serve as a doctor for a month each year in the war. The months when he was away were like hell for my mother. She recalled how truly afraid she was during those times, despite efforts to keep herself together. Nowadays she blames herself for how timorous my brother and I were, believing that she unconsciously passed her fears on to us during that time. Conversations with my mother reminded me of my childhood fears and anxieties and ultimately sparked the idea behind Under the Shadow. Although Under the Shadow is a work of fiction in the genre of horror, many key elements of its plot have been taken from my own experiences, stories I’ve heard and people I knew.

If you can’t make it to the IFC, you can look forward to it showing up on Netflix soon or watch it now for only $6.99 using the link just above. It is a very fine genre film with just enough insights into Iranian society to set it apart from the average flick.

October 1, 2016

The 13th; The Birth of a Nation

Filed under: african-american,Film — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

While likely scheduled for distribution independently of each other, the pending release of “Birth of a Nation” and the selection of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “The 13th” for last night’s opening of the New York Film Festival practically amount to joint appearances. The first is a narrative film written, directed by and starring Nate Parker as Nat Turner, the leader of an 1831 slave rebellion, that opens everywhere on October 7th, the same day that DuVernay’s documentary about the prison-industrial complex is released to Netflix.

Put succinctly, these are two films that must be seen as complements to each other. In explaining why forms of slavery linger on to this day, DuVernay’s film starts with the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and that was the centerpiece of Stephen Spielberg’s vastly overrated “Lincoln”. If you read the fine print of the amendment, you will see that it stipulates: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” It is that “except as a punishment for crime” that is key to understanding how the phenomenon of what author Douglas Blackmon called “Slavery by Another Name” continues to this day.

“The 13th” begins by describing the quandary faced by the southern bourgeoisie once slavery was abolished. Without Black people no longer in bondage and free to rely on subsistence farming, how could you secure the cheap labor that was necessary to get the economy going? The answer was convict labor. From the earliest days of reconstruction, laws were passed in the south to impose stiff prison terms on offenses as minor as loitering—used of course on a discriminatory basis against Blacks. As convicts, they could be forced to do the same kind of work they used to do as slaves and with even less concern about their comfort or their health.

The efforts at identifying Blacks with crime was an ongoing one. Key to that was depicting the Deep South as a victim of Northern aggression and the connivance of the freed slaves who were savages with nothing but criminal mayhem in their hearts, particularly raping white women. In 1905 Thomas Dixon Jr. wrote a book titled “The Clansman” that was key to the revival of the KKK. A decade later D.W. Griffith made “The Birth of a Nation” that was based on Dixon’s book and that became a wildly popular film in both the north and the south, so much so that Woodrow Wilson organized a private screening at the White House.

When asked by Filmmaker Magazine why he chose the same title as Griffith’s KKK propaganda, Nate Parker replied:

From sanitized truths about our forefathers to mis-education regarding this country’s dark days of slavery, we have refused to honestly confront the many afflictions of our past. This disease of denial has served as a massive stumbling block on our way to healing from those wounds. Addressing Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is one of the many steps necessary in treating this disease. Griffith’s film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance. Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today.

I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.

I will return to Ava DuVernay’s documentary but will now make the case for Nate Parker’s film being the first made by an American filmmaker that is both artistically and politically on the same level as Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn”. Only 36 years old, Parker has made a breakthrough film that is my choice for best picture of 2016 that will almost inevitably not be dislodged from that status even as the director is now being dogged by controversy about a rape charge made against him in 1999.

Like “12 Years a Slave”, a much heralded 2013 film by Black British director Steve McQueen, much of “The Birth of a Nation” is a searing depiction of slaves being brutalized to the point where you need to cover your eyes. In one scene, we see a slave master using a hammer to knock out the teeth of a slave in chains who is on a hunger strike. Without the teeth, it is easier to put a funnel into his mouth and force-feed him just as is the case with 3 prisoners in Wisconsin this year who were protesting solitary confinement.

What distinguishes Parker’s film from McQueen’s is that it is not merely a grim parade of suffering that is the British director’s hallmark and something Armond White once described as follows:

For McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features Hunger and Shame. Brutality is McQueen’s forte. As with his fine-arts background, McQueen’s films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events.

For Parker, the real story is Nat Turner’s religious, moral and political evolution from a preacher hired out to plantation owners to pacify their slaves with hopes for the afterlife into a rebel determined to fight for his freedom until death.

The film begins with the young Nat Turner reading a book he purloined from his master’s library and reading by candlelight a la Abe Lincoln. When the master’s wife learns about his ability, she invites him into the library to see the books at leisure. When he approaches a shelf, she pulls him away and says that those will not be of use to him. He only needs to read one book, the bible that she slips into his hands.

At first he feels a sense of pride in being able to deliver sermons to the slaves that lifts their spirits but eventually the cognitive dissonance between the cruelty he sees delivered upon them diurnally and the “pie in the sky” he preaches reaches a breaking point after his wife is raped and beaten by a three men out patrolling for runaway slaves.

Besides the character development and dialog that are at a level much higher than any Hollywood film I have seen in years, “The Birth of a Nation” is a cinematographic wonder with poetic renderings of nature, humanity and the southern agrarian milieu. The white characters are universally despicable but not in the cartoonish way of most films about the slave epoch especially Quentin Tarantino’s stupid burlesque of the period.

Many of you are probably aware that William Styron wrote a novel titled “The Confessions of Nat Turner” in 1967 during a period of deep Black militancy. Styron’s portrayal of Turner had little to do with Nate Parker’s film. He found Turner to be a “dangerous religious lunatic and . . . psychopathic monster” based on his reading of Turner’s confession to a court-appointed lawyer named Thomas Gray. Styron’s version of Turner was so offensive that a rejoinder titled “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond” eventually appeared. In anticipating his later morphing into a bigoted reactionary, Eugene Genovese wrote a long defense of Styron in the N.Y. Review of Books.

In reading a 2008 NY Times article about Styron and the Nat Turner controversy, I found myself wondering what Turner actually said in the confessions. As it happens, it has been posted on the Internet and is well worth reading. Much of it has the rhetoric of a sermon but there are a couple of sentences that help you to understand why Nat Turner became a rebel:

And the negroes found fault, and murmurred against me, saying that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world. And about this time I had a vision–and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened–the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams–and I heard a voice saying, “Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it.”

For Styron, Nat Turner’s rebellion was not that much different than the advance of an unnamed former slave in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” upon a white southern belle who generates so much fear that she throws herself off a cliff rather than submit to him. The Wikipedia article on Styron’s novel describes his version of the scene that is the climax of Parker’s film:

From the very beginning, however, Nat’s rebellion goes all wrong. His recruits get drunk and waste precious time plundering and raping. A crazed, axe-wielding, sex-obsessed slave named Will begins ridiculing Nat’s leadership and attempting to seize control of the tiny slave army.

Since rape is a key event in Parker’s movie as well, but more logically one involving a white assault on a Black woman, much has been made about the controversy that surfaced on August 16th when it was revealed that he was accused but then cleared of rape charges when he was a student at Penn State. His accuser committed suicide in 2012 when she was 30 years old. The news led the prestigious American Film Institute to cancel a screening. Parker is scheduled to appear on “Sixty Minutes” tomorrow night but I am not sure I am interested in hearing about the case.

Even if he was guilty of the heinous act, that does not make “The Birth of a Nation” any less worthy of the accolades it has received. Long after Nate Parker is dead and gone, people will be watching this film in the same way that others have viewed Griffith’s classic. Its message is toxic but it was an important film as even James Agee argued. While Griffith was never accused of such a crime, his film was arguably responsible in part for thousands of lynchings. The legacy of Parker’s film will be one as a significant contribution to the art of cinema and the Black struggle. His own life is incidental to that.

Returning now to Ava DuVernay’s masterpiece of a documentary, it overlaps in considerable ways with Parker’s film since they both are reflections on one of America’s original sins: slavery.

“The 13th” is a fearless work that is not afraid to take on sacred cows including Bill Clinton who was once referred to as “our first Black president” by Toni Morrison in 1996. DuVernay provides compelling detail about how a series of presidents have re-instituted “slavery by another name” by making black skin a signifier for crime.

It all started with Nixon’s “southern strategy” that went hand in hand with a war on drugs that has been essential to the carceration epidemic that has resulted in 1 out of 3 Blacks ending up behind bars in their lifetime as opposed to 1 out of 17 whites. Nixon’s aide John Erlichman put it this way:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Ronald Reagan’s aide Lee Atwater explained how you can be a racist without actually using words like “nigger”:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Now everybody knows that people like Nixon, Reagan, George Bush father and son, and Donald Trump are racist pigs but what about Bill Clinton, the “first Black president”?

DuVernay calls  upon expert witnesses who are much less impressed with the former president and his wife now running for president who referred to young Blacks as “super-predators” in 1996, a term that had the same kind of loaded significance as a scene from D.W. Griffith’s film.

Leaving aside words, some of Clinton’s critics who appear in the film cite his 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill as far more harmful than any legislation backed by Republicans. It was responsible for mandatory minimums and the “three strikes” life sentences that have filled our prisons.

Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, a book that has obviously influenced DuVernay’s film, is interviewed throughout the film and is one of many very informed and eloquent social critics that make “The 13th” must-viewing. In a Nation Magazine article  titled “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote”, she explains why (it should be mentioned that she had problems with Bernie Sanders who also voted for the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill):

An oft-repeated myth about the Clinton administration is that although it was overly tough on crime back in the 1990s, at least its policies were good for the economy and for black unemployment rates. The truth is more troubling. As unemployment rates sank to historically low levels for white Americans in the 1990s, the jobless rate among black men in their 20s who didn’t have a college degree rose to its highest level ever. This increase in joblessness was propelled by the skyrocketing incarceration rate.

Why is this not common knowledge? Because government statistics like poverty and unemployment rates do not include incarcerated people. As Harvard sociologist Bruce Western explains: “Much of the optimism about declines in racial inequality and the power of the US model of economic growth is misplaced once we account for the invisible poor, behind the walls of America’s prisons and jails.” When Clinton left office in 2001, the true jobless rate for young, non-college-educated black men (including those behind bars) was 42 percent. This figure was never reported. Instead, the media claimed that unemployment rates for African Americans had fallen to record lows, neglecting to mention that this miracle was possible only because incarceration rates were now at record highs. Young black men weren’t looking for work at high rates during the Clinton era because they were now behind bars—out of sight, out of mind, and no longer counted in poverty and unemployment statistics.

To make matters worse, the federal safety net for poor families was torn to shreds by the Clinton administration in its effort to “end welfare as we know it.” In his 1996 State of the Union address, given during his re-election campaign, Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over” and immediately sought to prove it by dismantling the federal welfare system known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). The welfare-reform legislation that he signed—which Hillary Clinton ardently supported then and characterized as a success as recently as 2008—replaced the federal safety net with a block grant to the states, imposed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, added work requirements, barred undocumented immigrants from licensed professions, and slashed overall public welfare funding by $54 billion (some was later restored).

September 30, 2016

Three documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm

Opening today at the Film Forum in NY, “Do not Resist” could not be more topical. It is a close look at the militarization of police departments in the USA as well as an evolving form of profiling that has an eerie affinity with the Tom Cruise film “Minority Report” based on a Philip K. Dick short story.

The film opens on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri as Black Lives Matter activists and their supporters fill the streets in August 2014 to protest the killing of Michael Brown. The forces arrayed against them are essentially the same as those that Iraqis confronted in places like Fallujah and Mosul: heavily armored troop carriers with cops in body armor toting automatic rifles. Unlike the automatic rifles that can be purchased in gun shops, these have not been altered to only fire single shots. These M-16’s are capable of firing 700–950 rounds per minute. Is this the right weapon for the streets of Ferguson or any American city for that matter?

In the 1960s, the left and the Black Panther Party in particular used to refer to the cops as an occupying army. Back then it might have struck some liberals as a hyperbole but reality has caught up with the rhetoric. This is exactly what police departments have become in a place like Concord, New Hampshire that has had exactly two murders in the past 16 years. Director Craig Atkinson films a city council meeting in which there is a hearing on whether to accept the “gift” of an armored troop carrier from the Department of Homeland Security that has dispensed $38 billion in military equipment to local precincts since it was formed. One of the people speaking to the councilman is a Marine corps veteran who served in Fallujah. Despite his insistence that the equipment has no use in Concord, they vote to accept it.

We see cops in a training session with David Grossman, a former West Point psychology professor, professor of military science, and Army Ranger who founded something called the Killology Research Group. No, I am not joking. He tells the audience that arresting a “bad guy” affords the same kind of pleasure as having sex and then goes on to say that cops are in the business of being more violent than the criminal since that is what it takes to keep the peace. Poor George Orwell didn’t see the half of it. Oh, did I mention that Grossman never was in combat?

Even further out on the insanity spectrum is Richard A. Berk, a U. of Pennsylvania criminology professor who tells Atkinson that we are moving closer to the point where criminals can be identified before they are born by examining the demographics of their parents, including race. At some point, this will become an exact computer-driven science that will allow preemptive strikes against the “bad guys” just like Predator drones.

In January 2013, Wired Magazine reported on the professor:

The software aims to replace the judgments parole officers already make based on a parolee’s criminal record and is currently being used in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Richard Berk, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania who developed the algorithm, claims it will reduce the murder rate and other crimes and could help courts set bail amounts as well as sentencing in the future.

“When a person goes on probation or parole they are supervised by an officer. The question that officer has to answer is ‘what level of supervision do you provide?’” Berk told ABC News. The software simply replaces that kind of ad hoc decision-making that officers already do, he says.

To create the software, researchers assembled a dataset of more than 60,000 crimes, including homicides, then wrote an algorithm to find the people behind the crimes who were more likely to commit murder when paroled or put on probation. Berk claims the software could identify eight future murderers out of 100.

What makes the film compelling above all else is the willingness of people like Berk and various Swat team officers to open up to Atkinson who accompanies them on raids just like in the awful reality show “Cops”. The footage is appalling. We see more than a dozen heavily armed cops raiding the home of an African-American family on the premise that a major drug trafficking gang lives there. They bust all the windows in the course of the raid for reasons that make about as much sense as any other forms of police behavior depicted in the film. It turns out that there is a tiny amount of weed in the house that belongs to a young man going to college who they take off in handcuffs. When asked by his father what they are going to do about the broken windows, they shrug their shoulders and say it was necessary.

In the press notes, Atkinson states how he came to make the film:

In April 2013, I watched the police response in the days following the Boston Marathon bombing in awe. I had never associated the vehicles, weapons and tactics used by officers after the attack with domestic police work. I grew up with the War on Drugs era of policing: My father was an officer for 29 years in a city bordering Detroit and became a SWAT commander when his city formed a team in 1989. What I wasn’t familiar with, since my father’s retirement from the force in 2002, was the effect the War on Terror had on police work. Making this film was an attempt to understand what had changed.

Knowing that interviews with experts would do little to communicate the on-the ground reality of American policing, we instead set out to give the viewer a direct experience. We attended police conventions throughout the country and started conversations with SWAT officers at equipment expos and a seemingly endless cascade of happy hours, offering the only thing we could: an authentic portrayal of whatever we filmed together. On more than one occasion, we were on our way to the airport, camera in hand, only to receive a phone call from our contact in the police department instructing us not to come. Our access seemed to be directly tied to the amount of negative press the police were getting at that time. It became increasingly difficult to get access after the events in Ferguson, and there were many times we thought we would have to stop production altogether. The urgency of the situation, however, motivated us to continue.

Like Craig Atkinson, co-directors Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi had extraordinary access to some sordid characters, in this instance the top cleric of the Red Mosque network in Pakistan rather than racist cops. The result was a compelling documentary that is essential for understanding the growth of jihadi-breeding Madrassas in Pakistan that opened today at the Cinema Village in New York.

Much of the film consists of interviews with Maulana Abdul Aziz, who despite his bland manner is just as toxic as any ISIS figurehead. While he claims to be a man of peace, he insists that Pakistan will endure bloody turmoil until it becomes an Islamic state.

His main adversary is Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physics professor in Lahore who is one of the country’s most outspoken opponents of Islamic fundamentalism. It is a miracle that he has not been killed. He is particularly appalled by the total absence of scientific education in the madrassas that are mostly devoted to teaching young boys and girls how to memorize the Quran.

While the film does not exactly apply a historical materialist analysis to the growth of the Red Mosque network, it is painfully obvious why the schools are flourishing. For children from the Pakistani countryside, as well as those who came originally from Kashmir, it is the only way to have food and a roof over their heads. Their parents tend to be poor farmers and day laborers who are just one step beyond starvation themselves. According to the UN’s most recent Human Development Indicators report, 60.3% of Pakistan’s population lives under $1 a day. If memorizing the Quran means having something to eat, that’s motivation enough. Indeed, it might even motivate you to become a suicide bomber as is suggested by an 8-year old student of Aziz reciting a chant about jihad for the cameras that includes a line about killing anybody who attacks their mosque.

The Red Mosque network does have reasons to fear such an attack since an escalating series of confrontations between them and the government finally led to the siege of their main mosque in Islamabad in 2007 that resulted in 254 deaths. This led to a war in Waziristan that pitted Aziz’s allies in the Taliban against the Pakistani army that led to another 3000 deaths.

The film depicts a conflict that has ramifications for the entire world, not just in Islamabad or Pakistan. The boys who go to Aziz’s madrassas are cannon fodder for an Islamist movement that believes the solution to the world’s problems is Salafism of the most extreme variety. Right now the White House solution to this “threat” is Predator drones.

In November 2014, Steve Coll reported on Predator drone strikes for the New Yorker magazine, a weapon that Obama joked about in a White House Correspondents Dinner in 2010: “The Jonas Brothers are here; they’re out there somewhere. Sasha and Malia are huge fans. But boys, don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you, ‘predator drones.’ You will never see it coming. You think I’m joking.” Most people understand how creepy the president was when he made this joke, especially in light of what was happening on the ground as Coll reported:

On January 23, 2009, three days after Obama took office, two C.I.A. drones struck inside Pakistan—one in South Waziristan and one in North Waziristan. Both attacks reportedly killed civilians. The strike in North Waziristan hit a private home in the village of Zeraki. According to an affidavit from two witnesses, filed in a complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the dead included an eighth-grade boy and schoolteachers. The South Waziristan strike killed a pro-government peace negotiator who was a tribal leader and four of his family members, entirely in error, according to “Kill or Capture” (2012), a book about Obama’s counterterrorism policy by the former Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman.

When you keep in mind that Hillary Clinton is a big fan of Predator drones, approving 99 out of a 100 strikes, that’s reason enough to vote Green in 2016.

Finally, there is “The Hurt Business”, a film that unfortunately came to my attention only yesterday on the very day it was both opening and closing. I am not quite sure how the documentary got distributed on a single-day basis but it is an excellent film about a not so excellent subject—Mixed Martial Arts—that should be available on VOD before long (I will post a notice when that happens.)

In 2002 when I got cable, mostly as way to watch TV after the antenna on top of the WTC came crashing down along with the rest of the building a few months earlier, I stumbled across something called MMA that I found oddly compelling in the same way that “Cops” was compelling. Although I hate violence and police arrests, especially of people smoking weed as seen in “Do not Resist”, there was something morbidly fascinating about men beating each other up.

“The Hurt Business” has the particular merit of explaining why such spectacles can command the attention of a Marxist like me as well as millions of other Americans who do like to see people beaten to a bloody pulp. I am not a sociobiologist but there is something very deeply rooted in class society that allows it to become a spectator sport. In fact, the film points out that it was part of the Greek Olympics early on and even shows a vase from the 5th century depicting a fighter “tapping out” to show that he is surrendering.

Despite the senselessness of the “sport”, the participants interviewed by director Vlad Yudin, a Russian émigré, include some of the retired fighters I used to watch more than a decade ago (Tito Ortiz, Chuck Lidell, Ken Shamrock, Kenny Florian) and today’s top names including Ronda Rousey, who some regard as pound for pound the finest female fighter who ever lived (until she got knocked out last year), are all articulate, self-effacing, funny, and likeable.

Two things stand out in the film. First is the vulnerability the fighters have to being economically exploited. For many, a big payday is $25,000—hardly a sum that will allow you to live like a hedge fund manager. If you become a headliner like Rousey, the pay-off will be much larger but getting there is no easy matter. Unlike boxing, where eye damage and the like can keep you out of the ring for an extended period, mixed martial arts is a combination of boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu and just about every other form of hand-to-hand combat. This means that you can blow out a knee as happened to former light-heavyweight champion Rashad Evans whose struggle to recover and get back into the ring is just one of the human dramas that the film sensitively depicts.

While there is only a brief mention of concussions in the film, it should be abundantly clear that MMA fighters are just as susceptible to permanent brain damages as boxers. One fighter admits to a doctor that he has suffered 14 concussions in his career. Like baseball players, there is a big temptation to use steroids. For a MMA fighter, the incentive is even greater since their career is so much more short-lived.

I suspect that boxing, MMA and even football will die out when the capitalist system is replaced by one that values human life and happiness above everything else. Maybe in that better future, competition will take place over the chess board or even touch football. Or maybe people will just be tired of competition period. After 10,000 years it does become tiresome.


September 28, 2016

I, Daniel Blake

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:01 pm

If Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake” had a subtitle, it could well be “Why Jeremy Corbyn became Labour Party leader”. Focused on the Kafkaesque ordeals a 59-year old widowed carpenter puts up with to get health allowance benefits after suffering a heart attack, it is an indictment of an entire social system in which Britain’s most vulnerable are being thrown overboard by a cold and cost-conscious bureaucracy that received its marching orders from the combined forces of New Labour and the Tories.

As the film begins, we only hear the voices of Daniel Blake and his petty official interrogator who is asking him a series of questions about his health status: Was he able to lift his arms above his head?; Could he walk 50 meters from his home?; Was he having problems with his bowel movements? After each question, he responds by saying that it is heart preventing him from work, not his hands, feet or ass. His physician has told him that he must receive benefits for another month before he can be cleared to go back to work, something that he wants more than anybody including the penny-pinching bureaucrats. This is of no importance to his interrogator who deems him fit to work.

When we finally see the two, they are sitting in a benefits office in Newcastle, a solidly blue-collar city in northeast England where Blake has worked all his life. It gave birth to the saying “Bringing coal to Newcastle”, which means a foolish action since Newcastle had been a mining town as far back as the sixteenth century. The office houses the local Department of Work and Pensions (DWP)  and looks just like the unemployment office I used to visit after retiring from Columbia University in 2012. Despite the reputation of American cruelty to those in a dependent state, I never faced the kind of grilling that Daniel Blake submitted to. When Blake is told by the bureaucrat that he is required to start working for work immediately or else he would be cut off, he challenges her. How do her inane questions that have nothing to do with his heart attack trump the his doctor’s orders? What gives her that power? Upon being challenged, she replies superciliously that she is a qualified health professional and invites him to challenge the denial of benefits if he so wishes. She has him over a barrel.

Not knowing much about this aspect of the one-time vaunted British welfare state, I did a bit of research and discovered that the interrogation was being carried out under a plan designed by Atos, a French firm that was hired out to the DWP in 2008 when Tony Blair was Prime Minister.

Was it possible that Loach was exaggerating the assault on health and income benefits? If anything his account was understated as demonstrated by this February 12, 2016 Telegraph article:

A dying Army veteran suffering from dementia has been sent a “Capability For Work questionnaire” by the Department for Work and Pensions, his family say.

Desmond O’Toole, 63, served his country in the Royal Engineers but is now being cared for in a nursing home as Alzheimer’s has left him unable to walk, talk or chew food.

Now his family have taken to Facebook to complain about the DWP questionnaire to see if Mr O’Toole is able to return to work.

“Yet again my mum has to fill in another 20-page form so my dad can get the benefits he needs.”

Daniel Blake is simultaneously a fully-developed character and a universal symbol of Britain’s betrayed working class, just as much as the miners who struck in 1984. Although much more representative of individual resistance than mass action, Blake continuously evokes sympathy from onlookers who also feel screwed by New Labour and the Tories. As Blake witnesses a young woman and her two children being given the runaround at the DWP office, he does what any class-conscious worker would do. He speaks up on her behalf and confronts the two security guards who are throwing her out.

This leads to a close connection between him and the single mom’s family who have ended up in Newcastle when an apartment had become available. It was a big step up from living in a homeless shelter in London but the woman named Katy (Hayley Squires) is still living on the margins, depending on the food bank and even resorting to shoplifting to keep her children fed.

As Daniel Blake, Dave Johns is my pick for best actor of 2016. Besides being an actor, he is a stand-up comedian who has worked in improv. He brings a sense of comic timing to the role that often gives you the feeling that the film itself was partly improvised just like a Mike Leigh film.

As it happens, the script was written by Paul Laverty who wrote the screenplay for Loach’s “Carla’s Song”, a film about the Sandinista revolution. Laverty drew upon his own experience making this film. When I was involved with technical aid projects in Nicaragua, Laverty—an attorney—was providing information to human rights groups about contra crimes he collected in the war zone. He also wrote the script for “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”, Loach’s film about the Irish rebellion of the 1920s.

Laverty’s recollections in the press notes should give you an idea of how close he and Loach were to the realities of the British poor. The film has an authenticity about the marginalized population that most British films lack, even when their heart is in the right place:

But the immediate spark for this story started with a call I got from Ken to join him on a visit to his childhood home of Nuneaton where he has close connection with a charity that deals with homelessness. We met some terrific workers and they introduced us to some of the youngsters they were working with. One lad whom they had recently helped shared his life story with us. It was his casual mention of hunger and description of nausea and lightheadedness as he tried to work (as usual, zero hour contracts with precarious work on an ad hoc basis) that really struck us.

As Ken and I travelled the country, one contact leading to another, we heard many stories. Food banks became a rich source of information. It struck us that when we made MY NAME IS JOE or SWEET SIXTEEN, or even going further back to Ken’s earlier films, one of the big differences now was the new world of food banks.

As more and more stories came to light we realised that many people are now making a choice between food or heat. We met a remarkable man in Scotland, principled and articulate, desperate to work, who refused point blank to do meaningless workfare, who was given endless sanctions by the Department for Work and Pensions. He never turned his heating on, survived on the cheapest canned food from Lidl and nearly got frostbite in February 2015.

We heard stories of “revenge evictions” i.e. tenants thrown from their homes for having the temerity to complain of faults and poor conditions. We were given examples of the poor being moved from London and offered places outside the capital, a species of social cleansing. And it was impossible not to sense the echo from some fifty years back when Ken and colleagues made CATHY COME HOME although this was something we never talked about.

Breaking the stereotypes, we heard that many of those attending the food banks were not unemployed but the working poor who couldn’t make ends meet. Zero hour contracts caused havoc to many, making it impossible to plan their lives with any certainty and leaving them bouncing between irregular work and the complexity of the bene t system.

Another significant group we spoke to in the food banks were those who had been sanctioned (i.e. bene ts stopped as punishment which could be from a minimum of a month to three years) by the DWP. Some of the stories were so surreal that if we had them in the script they would undermine credibility, like the father who was sanctioned for attending the birth of his child, or a relative attending a funeral, despite informing the DWP of the reasons. Literally millions have been sanctioned and their lives, and those of their children, thrown into desperation by a simple administrative decision. Criminals are treated with more natural justice, and the fines are often less than what benefit claimants lose when hit by a sanction.

Food. Heat. House. The basics, from time immemorial. We knew in our gut this film had to be raw. Elemental.

“I, Daniel Blake” will be shown at the NY Film Festival on Saturday, October 1 at 3:00 PM and Sunday, October 2, 12:30 PM. It is Ken Loach at his best and it doesn’t get any better than that. (Ticket information here.)




September 26, 2016

The Unknown Girl

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:52 pm

This year’s New York Film Festival has a bumper crop of political films that are undoubtedly connected to the stormy period we are living through. In years past, I would have not had the opportunity to attend press screenings since getting credentialed was a bureaucratic nightmare for anybody who was not a full-time paid employee of a print publication like the NY Times, the Village Voice, et al. But in recent years I have been invited to press screenings from one or another of a large number of film publicists who cut through the red tape because they are familiar with my coverage of political films. The dovetailing of interests might be indicated by the films I will be covering this year for the festival that begins on September 30th. My strong recommendation is for New Yorkers to consult the schedule since this is a banner year for the radical film buff as would be indicated by the following items:

  1. Neruda—a quirky but brilliant film about the Communist poet from Chile that I have already reviewed.
  2. The Thirteenth—a documentary about the Black liberation struggle made by Ava DuVernay, the director of “Selma”.
  3. Aquarius—a Brazilian film about a 65-year old widow fending off a real estate developer trying to buy her apartment.
  4. I, Daniel Blake—a Ken Loach film about the British health system.
  5. The Unknown Girl—the latest Dardenne brothers film that I saw this morning and now review below.

Like “The Promise” and “Two Days, One Night”, “The Unknown Girl” examines the moral dilemmas facing people living in Belgian society where the possibilities of acting honorably are constrained by the capitalist system. In “The Promise”, a teenaged boy is forced by his racist father to keep secret the death of an undocumented worker from Africa. When he comes in contact with the man’s widow, he violates his father’s trust but discovers his own innate humanity. In “Two Days, One Night”, a woman pleads with co-workers from her factory to forsake a desperately needed year-end bonus so that she won’t be laid off.

The unknown girl referred to in the title is a seventeen-year old prostitute from Africa who buzzes to be let into the medical offices of Dr. Jenny Davin an hour after office hours have closed. Since her office is in a poor neighborhood in the outskirts of Lieges with more than enough patients to make regular hours exhausting in themselves, the refusal to open the door does not seem particularly portentous.

The next morning cops show up at her door to inform her that the girl was found dead on the banks of the Meuse River, the result of a fractured skull probably due to a violent assault. Davin, a single woman in her thirties who seems to have no life outside of her patients, is stricken with guilt over finding this out. She might not have landed the blow but her keeping the doors closed was almost being an accessory after the fact since the girl was not a patient but someone fleeing an assailant. Will this tangled human relationship evoke Europe’s refusal to accept the refugees fleeing war and economic misery? One cannot be sure that this was the Dardenne brothers’ intention but on a subconscious level, it is entirely possible.

The girl’s body lacked any kind of identification papers so Dr. Davin begins to grow even more remorseful. Not only was she inadvertently responsible for her death; she has denied her family the knowledge of her passing since she is unknown. Buried in a potter’s field, she can only be identified by the newly dug up dirt above her coffin.

Like the factory worker who goes knocking on doors in “Two Days, One Night”, “The Unknown Girl” is also a film whose plot is driven by a similar voyage as the doctor contacts people one by one who might have run into the prostitute on the night she was killed. Can they tell her who she was? While there is an element of a detective story at work here, including facing the violence of men who do not want her snooping around, the film is much more an existential mystery as the doctor tries to persuade various men to unburden themselves of a secret. And like “Two Days, One Night”, the conversations become increasingly intense to the point of leaving you emotionally drained.

The film is made in the Dardenne brothers characteristically austere naturalistic style with no interest in melodrama, only in showing the daily grind of a doctor who in her spare moments plays amateur detective. Unlike no other film I have ever seen, this is one that really conveys the life of a doctor. Since the Belgian medical system pays for house visits, many of her calls bring her into touch with poor people who are socially isolated. Her presence seems to lighten up their day, including a young cancer patient. In some ways, she is as much a priest as a doctor, especially when she is trying to get someone to confess.

As is the case with their previous films, there is no film score. But that does not mean that the sound of the film was of no interest to the co-directors. You constantly hear passing cars on the highway below the office, just as I hear now on Third Avenue beneath my high-rise. The low growl of the motors and the hiss of the tires against the pavement are as effective as the strings in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”.

I regard the Dardenne brothers as among a handful of directors who are continuing in the grand tradition of the masters of the 1950s and early 60s such as Kurosawa, Ray, Fellini and Truffaut. When you get an opportunity to grab one of their films, do not miss it. A word to the wise should be sufficient.



September 23, 2016

Ruins of Lifta; Seed

Filed under: Ecology,farming,Film,food,Palestine — louisproyect @ 11:51 pm

Within the first minute of “Ruins of Lifta”, I immediately recognized the co-director and principal subject of the documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that opened today at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. It was Menachem Daum, a religious Jew from Brooklyn who was likewise the co-director and principal subject of “Hiding and Seeking”, a film I reviewed in 2004 that chronicled Daum’s visit to Poland with his teen-aged sons in an effort to combat the stereotype common among Jewry, including his sons who were studying in a yeshiva, that the Poles were almost genetically disposed to anti-Semitism like the Germans were according to Daniel Goldhagen. From my review:

“Hiding and Seeking” opens with director Menachem Daum playing a tape for his two sons, who are both Orthodox Jews like him. It is a recording of a Brooklyn rabbi instructing his followers that the “only good goyim is a dead goyim”. (A goyim is a non-Jew.)

 Daum asks them for their reaction and is disappointed but not surprised to discover that they sympathize with the rabbi, while viewing their own relationship to the outside non-believing world more in terms of a desire for isolation rather than one based on animosity. Daum not only tells them that this clashes with his own vision of Judaism, but proceeds to spend the rest of this powerful documentary demonstrating that there is goodness in all human beings and that Jews must engage with rest of humanity with compassion.

 He leads them on a spiritual trek to the Polish countryside where his wife’s father and two uncles were hidden in a barn from the Nazis for over two years by Christian farmers. He wants to prove to them that ethical behavior can still be found in the face of general depravity. As long as that spark exists, there is hope for humanity. His sons, who are religious scholars living in Israel, treat the trip as a complete waste of time and speak directly to the camera about how foolish their father is.

This new film was made in the same vein but with a somewhat different dynamic. It is relatively easy for a father to wise up his kids about the Poles, especially when he introduces them to those that saved the lives of Jews during WWII but the goal in “Ruins of Lifta” is unrealizable—namely to break down the enmity between Jews and Palestinians. The reason for this is obvious. As long as Palestinians remain the dispossessed victims of the Nakba, there cannot be true reconciliation.

The Lifta referred to eponymously is a small Palestinian town that has not been lived in since 1948 when all of the inhabitants were ethnically cleansed. Now merely a collection of stone houses missing walls and roofs, it is located on the outskirts of Jerusalem where developers plan to tear them down and erect luxury high-rises. It was Daum’s intention to show solidarity with the Palestinians who hoped to preserve the ruins as a kind of recognition of what they lost. Much of the film consists of Daum touring the ruins with a former dweller named Yacoub Odeh who is a leader of the Coalition to Save Lifta. Daum keeps trying to persuade Odeh that the Jews had no other option except to create a state of their own but he responds quite logically that it was the Nazis who exterminated the Jews, not the Palestinians. It reminded me of Trotskyist leader George Novack’s observation that Jews were like people jumping out of a burning house but falling toward the sidewalk injured Palestinians walking innocently on the sidewalk beneath them.

Daum’s family was representative of the experience described by Novack. He lost many relatives in the holocaust and had a great-uncle from Poland who joined the Stern Gang. Toward the end of the film, he introduces his great-aunt survivor to Odeh and the same arguments ensue with her harping on Jewish entitlement to Israel because of the Bible and Hitler, an article of faith for Zionists. When Daum, his great-aunt and Odeh stroll through Lifta, it finally begins to dawn on her that real people were driven out of real homes and there is a spark of humanity.

To Daum’s credit, he speaks to Israeli historian Hillel Cohen toward the end of the film about his mission. Cohen explains to him that Palestinian hatred is to be expected. You cannot reconcile with the people you have victimized in the Nakba and continue to dominate. Cohen is a historian to be reckoned with on Israeli history in light of his “Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict” that was published last year. The book hones in on the street battles between Jews and Palestinians in 1929, seeing it as a harbinger of future disasters. In a Los Angeles Review of Books review, Arie Dubnov writes:

Departing from the “official” Zionist narrative that portrays all killings committed by Jews as acts of self-defense, he treats Simha Hinkis, the Jewish policeman from Jaffa, harshly: a murderer of innocents, using killing as an instrument of vengeance.

The film was co-directed by Oren Rudavsky, who also co-directed “Hiding and Seeking”. The two also were responsible for “A Life Apart”, a documentary about the Hasidic Jews that was co-narrated by Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker (a couple of Jews if you hadn’t noticed) and short-listed for an Academy Award in 1997. I haven’t seen it but on the basis of the films reviewed above, I assume that it is very good.

Today I was stunned to learn that Libertarian Party presidential candidate told a National Press Club luncheon that “In billions of years, the sun is going to actually grow and encompass the Earth, right? So global warming is in our future.” That encapsulated for me the utter indifference that capitalist ideologues and the plutocrats they serve to humanity’s future. If it isn’t relevant to the next quarterly earnings report, they can’t be bothered.

As I watched the superb documentary “Seed” that opened today at the Cinema Village in New York, I could not help but think of the threat to our lives and that of future generations posed by the capitalist class, with the libertarians such as Johnson and the Koch brothers representing its shock troops.

Despite the familiarity I have with the environmental crisis, I was startled to learn at the beginning of the film that in the last century 94 percent of our seed varieties have disappeared. For example, there used to be 544 varieties of cabbage; now there are 28. The numbers for cauliflower are 158 and 9. Such a loss of diversity is alarming as it is for the animal kingdom. With panda bears and condors facing extinction, life will go on although in an impoverished manner. But with the loss of native species and their replacement by GMO monoculture crops, we threaten our own existence since such crops are tied inextricably to the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers that are destructive to the environment, not to speak of our own health. While eating genetically modified corn might not kill you, the weed-killing glyphosate that Monsanto sells certainly can.

Furthermore, the corn that is produced on factory farms in the USA today wreaked havoc on small farmers who could not compete with a commodity dumped into the Mexican market below the local market rate. It was especially devastating to the people of Oaxaca, a state where corn first began to be grown 8000 years ago and that enabled class societies such as the Aztecs to develop. What the conquistadores began to destroy in the 16th century came to a devastating climax in 1994 when NAFTA allowed the USA to sell its corn in Mexico. The ruin of Mexican farmers was not only accompanied by a loss of biodiversity but conceivably the explosion of the drug industry as poor people were forced to break the law in order to survive.

“Seed” is a moving portrait of men and women, including many from indigenous society in the Americas, who are committed to the preservation of seeds that in some ways makes them the counterpart of Noah. Instead of leading animals two by two into the ark, they go around the world tracking down food sources and collecting their seeds to be preserved for posterity. Some of them have the raffish charm of 60s hippies although their work is deadly serious.

The film interviews experts in the field such as Vandana Shiva who sees herself continuing in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. Among the most interesting are scientists who work with the Center for Food Safety, a group I was unfamiliar with. They are deeply involved with the struggle against Monsanto in Hawaii that is a threat to native crops as well as the health of the people who live on the islands and have become ill from the indiscriminate spraying of pesticides by Monsanto with no consideration for the well-being of the islanders. When an elected official moved to curtail their use, Monsanto filed suit against his county. Every time I hear about Monsanto in one of these films, I fantasize about their top officers standing on trial some day after the fashion of Nuremburg.

In addition to the essential information contained in the film, it is visually stunning. As one of the protagonists points out, the seeds for various kind of beans are as beautiful as jewels.

The film was co-directed by Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz who worked together on “Queen of the Sun: What are the bees telling us?”, a film I reviewed in 2011:

In 2007 the media was all abuzz (excuse the pun) over disappearing honey bees, something that was posited as a kind of mystery. After seeing the powerful documentary “Queen of the Sun: What the Bees are Telling Us?”, the only mystery will be why the mainstream media could not have uncovered the source of the looming disaster without delay. Its failure to do so reminds us of the need for alternative sources of information, starting with the experts and activists who are featured in this film directed by Taggart Siegel. Featured prominently in “Queen of the Sun”, beekeeper Gunter Hauk states that the crisis of the disappearing bee is “More important than global warming. We could call it Colony Collapse of the human being too.”

As opposed to corporate shills like Gary Johnson, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, is there any candidate who cares about these looming threats?

Protect Mother Earth:

Lead on a global treaty to halt climate change. End destructive energy extraction: fracking, tar sands, offshore drilling, oil trains, mountaintop removal, and uranium mines. Protect our public lands, water supplies, biological diversity, parks, and pollinators. Label GMOs, and put a moratorium on GMOs and pesticides until they are proven safe. Protect the rights of future generations.

That’s Jill Stein for you!

September 16, 2016

Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four

Filed under: Film,Gay — louisproyect @ 9:38 pm

“Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four” is a documentary that opened today at the Cinema Village in NY on the outrageous conviction of four lesbians in San Antonio–three of whom were Mexican-American–for sexually assaulting one of the women’s two young nieces. It might seem to have little in common with “Snowden”, but they overlap on one very important issue, namely the power of film to raise awareness over the rights of the accused whether they are obscure working-class figures accused of sex crimes or a whistle-blower known across the planet either as a hero or a traitor.

“Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four” mostly consists of interviews with the four women and their relatives as well as the lawyers who got involved with their defense. Among them is an old friend and comrade named Jeff Blackburn who was best known for his yeoman work in defending the 39 African-Americans in Tulia, Texas that were victims of a drug sting. At one point Blackburn states that trials such as these are not decided in the courtroom but in the world at large when a mobilization to change the public’s mind is mounted. That has been the case with the San Antonio Four, the Black men who were victimized in Tulia and before that all of the major political trials of the past 100 years when dedicated lawyers like Jeff, William Kunstler and Michael Ratner proved their mettle.

In the early 1970s the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist group I belonged to at the time, conducted an infelicitously named “probe” of the gay liberation movement to help it decide whether to “intervene”, another infelicitous term considering that it means the same thing as interfere. At the 1973 convention it decided to terminate the probe since it had gathered enough information to help it decide that the movement was more middle-class than the woman’s movement or the Black struggle, for example. Reflecting back on those times, I am sure that the SWP leadership thought that the gay movement was made up largely of well-off window dressers for Bloomingdales or florists. It simply lacked the political insight to understand that there were women like the San Antonio four that had more class credibility than anybody in the party.

They lived in west San Antonio, a barrio made up of people like Anna Vasquez, one of the four lesbians. She had figured out in her early teens that she was attracted to women and was reconciled to put up with homophobic abuse as the consequence of being true to her own identity. She was accepted to college but dropped out in her freshman year because of money problems. At that point she took a job working in a fast food restaurant with the hope of returning to college when she had the funds. In other words, she was the average working class youth with the exception of being attracted to her own sex.

Anna was in a relationship with a woman named Liz Ramirez, who was the aunt of the two young girls whose testimony led to their victimization. The two ran with Cassandra Rivera and Kristie Mayhugh both for moral support and the type of fun that working class people enjoy together–dancing, going to the beach, playing pool, etc.. Ramirez’s sister was separated from her husband who had decided to put the make on her despite her obvious preference for her own sex. The animosity that arose out of her rejection could have possibly influenced him into coaching his daughters to lie. One afternoon when the four women were hanging out at Liz’s house in the company of the two young girls, their world came crashing down. Instead of being called witches and put to death like in Salem, the false accusations of the children condemned them to years in prison.

The story they gave to the cops was filled with the wild inconsistencies that was typical of the period when Satanic cult panics were a stain across America. During the Reagan era, day care centers became witch covens where 6 year olds were supposedly serially raped by their caretakers and often “helped” to remember what happened by psychotherapists who could extract “repressed memories”.

Debby Nathan, one of the USA’s leading authorities on the neo-Salem witch-hunts of the 70s and 80s provides insightful background on why the four women were so easily convicted. San Antonio was not that much different than the rest of Texas, a place where sexism, racism, and homophobia were nurtured by the church, government and other powerful institutions.

Based on the word of the two children and a complete lack of physical evidence except a questionable medical examination of their vaginas, Liz Ramirez was sentenced to 37 ½ years and the other women received 15 years each.

Director Deborah S. Esquenazi described how she combined filmmaking and activism:

I collaborated with LGBTQQ activists to engage in a community-driven campaign to make noise about the women. Along with the Texas QPOC organization, ALLGO, and various national / local non-profits and student groups, we held 17 work-in-progress screenings across the state in a two-year span. We showed raw, unedited interviews with the women from their prisons as well shared interviews with attorneys, journalists and investigators, who were first-responders into the reinvestigation into this case.

I have long believed that Lenin’s concept of the vanguard needs to be adapted to 20th and now 21st century realities. In my view documentary film makers like Deborah S. Esquenazi are part of an informal vanguard that use a video camera in the same way that the Bolsheviks used Iskra. Causes such as the vindication of the San Antonio Four remind me of the attitude that Lenin had toward constructing a vanguard in “What is to be Done?”:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

September 15, 2016


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:50 pm

Like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and John Ford, Oliver Stone is a true auteur—a director who puts his unique stamp on a body of work defined by a particular theme and aesthetic. In Stone’s case, it is the story of lost innocence as the protagonist discovers essential truths about himself and the debased American system he mistakenly believed in. In “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Platoon”, the hero is a young man who joins the military to defend freedom in Vietnam only realizing in the end that he was a hired gun for Wall Street as Smedley Butler once put it. Landing a blue-chip job in that “Wall Street”, a young stockbroker decides that jail and a loss of a lucrative career is preferable to robbing ordinary working people with a fountain pen as Woody Guthrie put it in “Pretty Boy Floyd”. Even if “JFK” trafficked in wildly improbable conspiracy mongering, it shared their basic message, namely that the military-industrial complex and the big banks are enemies of peace and freedom.

After a long drought, Stone has made the kind of film he became famous for. Like Ron Kovic, the real-life hero of “Born on the Fourth of July”, Edward Snowden came from a family that embraced rightwing patriotic values. His father was a Coast Guard officer as was his maternal grandfather who became a senior FBI official after leaving the military and who was at the Pentagon on September 11th 2001.

Snowden enlisted in the Army to train for the Special Forces, an elite commando unit, but had to leave basic training after breaking both legs in exercises. He told the Guardian not long after he became a whistle-blower why he wanted to become a killer for Uncle Sam: “I wanted to fight in the Iraq war because I felt like I had an obligation as a human being to help free people from oppression”, the same kind of beliefs that motivated Ron Kovic to join the Marines in September 1964.

In Stone’s classic films, there is an adrenaline rush of sensationalism that propels the films forward: gun battles in Vietnam, eye-popping decadence on Wall Street or the skullduggery of assassins determined (rather improbably) to get rid of a president who had decided to end American intervention in Vietnam.

I was wary about how Stone would treat Edward Snowden’s odyssey from gung-ho patriot to principled opponent of unlawful surveillance. Since sensationalism was part of the Oliver Stone brand name, I half-expected “Snowden” to have scenes of the hero ducking under gunfire like Matt Damon in the Jason Bourne movies, especially when we are told as the film begins that it was “inspired” by the Edward Snowden story.

The big surprise is that Stone has made his classic redemption film but without the sensationalism we have grown to expect, a sign that even a seventy-year-old director is capable of growth. (Is there hope for me?) “Snowden” is not a spy thriller. It is instead a story of the moral and political awakening of a hero wrestling with the yawning gulf between the patriotic beliefs he had held since boyhood and American assaults on both people in far-off lands and those living inside the “Shining City upon a Hill”. Like Ron Kovic, Edward Snowden became a radical—not so much in the sense of embracing Marxist ideology but in sacrificing everything he had treasured up to the point when he became a whistle-blower: his livelihood, his prestige as a high-powered security engineer, and—most of all—his citizenship. Risking the charge of espionage, he stood up for the right to privacy, a basic right we are supposed to enjoy in a democracy. If Orwell’s classic novel was forever linked with the words “Big Brother is Watching You”, Snowden risked becoming an “unperson” in 2013 because he would not accept Big Brother reading your email, listening in on your phone calls or any other forms of electronic surveillance.

The film is structured as a series of encounters with people in authority who violate his sense of elementary rights to privacy. When he is in a training class for the CIA, the instructor tells the class that President Bush has a green light to snoop on Americans without a warrant because the 2008 amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 gives him that right. As Edward Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s face takes on the look of someone being told that it is okay to use the Constitution as toilet paper, which is essentially what the amendment did.

Gordon-Levitt is not only a fine actor who conveys Snowden’s combination of nerdiness and boy scout like idealism but someone ideally suited to bring such a character to life. His father was the news director of the Pacifica station in Los Angeles and his mother was a Peace and Freedom candidate in the 1970s.

In addition to showing how Snowden was pushed to the limit by a Deep State that violated constitutional rights while using verbiage defending them, “Snowden” is a love story about his long-term relationship with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), a woman he met through an online dating service geared to computer geeks. As you can imagine, the stresses he dealt with working for agencies he rapidly began losing faith in put the relationship through the mill. Ironically, it was her liberal politics that first got Snowden doubting the patriotic ideology he lived by and finally led to his putting his life on the line. In the Trotskyist movement we used to call that “horizontal recruitment”.

The screenplay was co-written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, a young screenwriter who has a BA in English from Harvard University. If he was responsible in some way for keeping “Snowden” close to the facts, he is to be commended.

If you’ve been watching “Mr. Robot” on the USA network, you’ll be familiar with the way a tale about hacking or whistle-blowing can become a peg to hang all sorts of paranoia and geek arcana upon. “Snowden” eschews any such temptations and instead focuses on the broader questions of privacy and accountability, matters that remain on the front burner given the government’s battles with Apple over bypassing the iPhone’s encryption features. It is very likely that if Snowden had not blown the whistle, Tim Cook would have given the FBI the green light.

Even if “Snowden” had been a lesser film, it was of major significance in putting the status of Edward Snowden on the front pages of newspapers and in the evening news. A campaign to pardon him has been launched by the ACLU to coincide with the film’s opening in major theaters everywhere. An op-ed in today’s NY Times co-authored by Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch and Salil Shetty, the secretary general of Amnesty International, makes the case for pardoning Snowden:

Since the United States canceled his passport, stranding him in the Moscow airport, Mr. Snowden has continued to demonstrate the principles that led him to disclose profoundly disturbing facts about surveillance overreach. He is the head of a human rights group, the Freedom of the Press Foundation; he’s developing technology to protect journalists in dangerous zones around the world from life-threatening surveillance; and he has frequently criticized the human rights and technology policies of Russia, the only country that stands between him and a high-security prison in the United States.

As should come as no surprise, the traditional rightwing views Snowden as a traitor. In a WSJ editorial, Hoover Institute fellow Josef Joffe regards Snowden as “the greatest counterintelligence disaster since the Rosenbergs and Klaus Fuchs, who betrayed America’s most precious nuclear secrets to Moscow.” What about Donald Trump, who has the reputation of being a friend of the Kremlin that is supposedly using Snowden as an asset? He told Fox News: “I think Snowden is a terrible threat, I think he’s a terrible traitor, and you know what we used to do in the good old days when we were a strong country — you know what we used to do to traitors, right?”

In an October 13, 2015 debate, Clinton was asked whether Snowden was a hero or a traitor. She said:

He broke the laws of the United States. He could have been a whistleblower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that.

Meanwhile, Jill Stein, a candidate who will be excluded from the debates, was clear about what Snowden deserved:

If elected president I will immediately pardon Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and John Kiriakou for their important work in exposing the massive, systematic violation of our constitutional rights. I would invite them to the White House to publicly acknowledge their heroism, and create a role for them in the Stein-Baraka Green party administration to help us create a modern framework that protects personal privacy while still conducting effective investigations where warranted.

For some of my comrades, the name Jill Stein is associated with subservience to the Kremlin. Would her advocacy for Snowden be linked in some fashion with a conspiracy to advance Putin’s agenda and sap the strength of the USA, so necessary according to some leftists as a counterforce to Russia?

Maybe Edward Snowden is not the person such a conspiracy can rely upon:


Snowden is a man of integrity and principle. Oliver Stone has made a spellbinding film about one of our heroes. My choice for one of the best films of 2016.

September 13, 2016

Command and Control

Filed under: Film,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 9:19 pm

When I was seven years old or so, I became terrified of nuclear war. We participated in “duck and cover” drills in school, which involved turning your desk on its side and cowering behind it. We saw films in the auditorium about how to survive a nuclear war and worried about the possibility of a cobalt bomb being developed, a device that we had heard could blow the world in half. When driving around with my mom, if I ever saw a cumulus nimbus cloud, I’d always ask if that was an H-Bomb.

Cumulus Nimbus

When I got to Bard College in 1961, students had become active around the need to oppose NY State Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s proposed legislation that would have made it mandatory for every house to have a fallout shelter. My friends started something called the Welcome the Bomb Committee, a satirical effort to put across the idea that if you are hospitable to nuclear weapons, they wouldn’t harm you.

With the end of the cold war, worries about nuclear war subsided except to bubble up from time to time in the Chicken Little journalism from that part of the left that is aligned with the Kremlin. Typical was F. William Engdahl, a former member of Lyndon Larouche’s fascist cult, who warned about NATO resorting to nuclear war over the Georgia-Russia war in 2008. You can take his article and substitute the word Ukraine for Georgia and it would be identical to those appearing now on Global Research and The Nation.

What I learned from “Command and Control”, the explosive (in more sense than one) documentary opening tomorrow at the Film Forum in NY was that the biggest danger in some ways was always us blowing ourselves up rather than some commie sneak attack. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo put it, we have met the enemy and he is us.

The film is directed by Robert Kenner and based on a 2014 book by Eric Schlosser titled “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety”. No, this is not Damascus, Syria (although people like Engdahl would likely jump to that conclusion) but Damascus, Arkansas, the site of a Titan II Missile Complex that had a disastrous fire caused by a minor accident on September 18, 1980.

A single Titan II missile in the Damascus underground silo had a 9 megaton H-Bomb warhead that packed an explosive power three times as great as every bomb dropped during WWII, including those over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Its firestorm could cover 1000 square miles and a radiation plume much greater in distance.

For comparison’s sake, a B-52 broke apart accidentally over Goldsboro, North Carolina on January 24, 1961, dropping two 4-megaton H-Bombs in the process. When searchers recovered one of the bombs, they were shocked to discover that three of the four safety devices had failed. This was according to a declassified document obtained by Schlosser and revealed in his book. So even if that was half the payload of the Damascus bomb, the death toll would have been over 100,000 while millions would have suffered debilitating chronic diseases from radiation exposure.

Director Robert Kenner was able to get the approval of a Titan II museum in Green Valley, Arizona to use their facilities to recreate the seemingly trivial accident that could have killed hundreds of thousands of people in a couple of days. Using archival footage of the Damascus explosion mixed with recreations at the museum, you really feel as if you are there on the day of the fateful incident.

It seems that a man doing routine maintenance dropped a socket wrench to the bottom of the silo where it bounced off the platform punctured a hole in a fuel tank, which began spouting fuel vapors. Since it was extremely volatile, anything could detonate it. And that is exactly what happened, costing the lives of men who heroically went down to cap the fuel. The explosion scattered bits of the missile in all directions, including the warhead that landed about a hundred feet from the silo in a nearby field. As is made abundantly clear in the film, scientists and engineers had never fully thought through the electronic safety devices inside the missile, especially the consequence of the circuit being melted down and rendered ineffective as nearly happened in Goldsboro.

Schlosser, who is a first rate journalist and author of “Fast Food Nation” that sits on my bookshelf at home, describes how the Pentagon reacted to the near catastrophe at the time:

It was covered by the nightly news, made headlines in our major newspapers. But the Pentagon was adamant that there was absolutely no way the warhead on the Titan II missile could have detonated. The press didn’t challenge that assertion. The story was soon forgotten. And we now know that the Pentagon’s reassuring words were a lie.

Sometimes it is easy to forget how totally insane the men and women are who rule the USA on behalf of the corporate elite that backed a foreign policy during the Cold War based on “better dead than Red”. They had 35,000 nuclear weapons in silos, on airplanes and in submarines that could have killed everybody on earth many times over—all necessary to preserve the private ownership of the means of production. With their control of the TV networks and the print media, it is easy to understand why the press didn’t challenge the Pentagon’s word.

In 1954 President Eisenhower, the sort of serenely wise and moderate Republican who Hillary Clinton seems to be modeling herself after, seriously considered dropping three atom bombs on the Viet Minh’s positions surrounding the French at Dien Bien Phu.

After Eisenhower returned to private life, we ended up with Jack Kennedy who every Democrat idolizes, including John Kerry who said, “We thank that whole generation for making America strong, for winning WWII, winning the Cold War, and for the great gift of service which brought America 50 years of peace and prosperity. My parents inspired me to serve, and when I was a high school junior, Kennedy called my generation to service.”

Right. This was the same JFK whose nuclear brinksmanship might have led to a global catastrophe in October 1962. After the blockade began, the USA began dropping depth charges with minimal explosive power on Russian submarines near Cuba with the intention of only forcing them to the surface. One of the submarines identified as B-59 came close to firing a nuclear torpedo but the submarine commander Vasili Arkhipov decided that it was better to go to the surface rather than risking nuclear annihilation. On October 13, 2002, the Boston Globe reported:

One of the Soviet captains gave the order to prepare to fire. But a cooler-headed officer persuaded him to wait for instructions from Moscow before unleashing a nuclear attack.

 ”We thought – that’s it – the end,” Vadim Orlov, a Soviet intelligence officer, was quoted as saying in recently declassified documents from the Cuban missile crisis.

I am not sure whether “cooler-headed” is all there is to this. As a country that saw millions of its citizens die in WWII, Russians had a deeper commitment to peace than the Americans who had not had a war on native soil in a century.

A week ago, the NY Times reported that Obama is unlikely to promise that the USA would never be the first to use nuclear weapons. The excuse given is that such a measure would “rattle” allies such as Japan and South Korea. As expected, JFK fanboy John Kerry sided with Obama and the other madmen determined to preserve American military superiority even if its economy is headed toward 3rd world standards. He also told Obama that a no-first-use pledge would weaken nuclear deterrence while Russia is running practice bombing runs over Europe and China is expanding its reach in the South China Sea. Isn’t there some other way to manage global conflict besides brandishing H-Bombs? Apparently not. In any case, China is on record committed to a no-first strike policy while Russia has stated that it would only use nuclear weapons if attacked first. I understand that these BRICS stalwarts are run by thugs but compared to the White House, they are Helen Caldicott on the question of nuclear war.

The Times article indicated that The Federation of American Scientists released an analysis showing that Obama had dismantled fewer nuclear warheads than any other post-Cold War president. Get that, you people who are okay with Hillary Clinton promising to continue the legacy of the Obama administration? I am much more afraid of her than Donald Trump if for no other reason that she is certain to be the next president while he is destined to continue building luxury condos and stiffing small businesses.

Meanwhile, Obama is all set to push forward with a one trillion dollar nuclear weapons “modernization” program that Clinton will surely continue. This includes an update to the B-61 “bunker buster” weapon that the Pentagon brass is drooling over. This is a wee, “aw cute” little A-Bomb that can be calibrated to deliver between 0.3 to 340 kilotons, just like the volume control on your remote. For comparison’s sake, the maximum output is 20 times that of the A-Bomb dropped on Hiroshima.


Phil Hoover, an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories, with a B61-12 nuclear weapon

The Guardian blew the whistle on this weapon on April 21, 2013:

Barack Obama has been accused of reneging on his disarmament pledges after it emerged the administration was planning to spend billions on upgrading nuclear bombs stored in Europe to make the weapons more reliable and accurate.

Under the plan, nearly 200 B61 gravity bombs stockpiled in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey would be given new tail fins that would turn them into guided weapons that could be delivered by stealth F35 fighter-bombers.

“This will be a significant upgrade of the US nuclear capability in Europe,” said Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons expert at the Federation of Nuclear Scientists. “It flies directly in the face of the pledges Obama made in 2010 that he would not deploy new weapons.”

All of this only steels me in my determination to support the Green Party in the 2016 elections, group that is on record advocating a humane and peaceful world:

Our government should establish a policy to abolish nuclear weapons. It should set the conditions and schedule for fulfilling that goal by taking the following steps:

  • Declare a no-first-strike policy.
  • Declare a no-pre-emptive strike policy.
  • Declare that the U.S. will never threaten or use a nuclear weapon, regardless of size, on a non-nuclear nation.
  • Sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Our pledge to end testing will open the way for non-nuclear states to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has been held up by our refusal to sign the CTBT. Honor the conditions set in the NPT for nuclear nations.
  • Reverse our withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and honor its stipulations.
  • End the research, testing and stockpiling of all nuclear weapons of any size.
  • Dismantle all nuclear warheads from their missiles.
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