Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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

Snowden

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:

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-6-36-13-pm

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.

b61-project-05_small

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.

September 12, 2016

When Justice isn’t Just

Filed under: african-american,Black Lives Matter,Film — louisproyect @ 8:20 pm

First Run Features released the 42-minute documentary When Justice Isn’t Just to iTunes on August 30 and follows up with a DVD beginning tomorrow, September 13, 2016. The film, directed by Oscar-nominated and NAACP Image Award winner David Massey, addresses the concept and reality of justice in the United States, particularly in regard to racial disparities in the American criminal justice system. It will be very useful for classroom discussions of why Black Lives Matter emerged, why Colin Kaepernick is refusing to stand for the national anthem, etc.

Filmed in cities across the country, the documentary explores why so many unarmed black people have been targeted and killed by law enforcement officers, an issue that has taken center stage in the national consciousness. The filmmakers talk to legal experts, activists and law enforcement officials who speak to the inequality within our criminal justice system. The film asks the crucial question of how to prevent more violence in this country, including Black on Black deaths. Activists, law enforcement officials, legal scholars, and the family members of victims offer a range of responses.

At its heart, When Justice Isn’t Just confronts the broken criminal justice system, focusing on the incarceration rate of people of color. As the Black Lives Matter movement and citizens nationwide question the accountability of our justice system in cases of police violence, When Justice Isn’t Just is an essential addition to the ongoing discussion about reform and renewal.

David Massey and producer Dawn Alexander have screened their film throughout the country. As Massey states, “we as filmmakers couldn’t sit on the sidelines without documenting one of the most important human rights issues facing America and the black community today.”

When Justice Isn’t Just features a broad array of people, including Civil Rights Attorney Benjamin L. Crump, Dr. Cornel West, Black Lives Matter’s Dr. Melina Abdullah, Criminal Attorney Tom Mesereau, LAPD Deputy Chief William Scott, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill and many more.

Director/Producer David Massey is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications & Education from Ohio Dominican University and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Advanced Film & Television from the American Film Institute. He is the first African American in the history of the Academy Awards to be nominated for an Oscar in the Live-Action Short Film category.

Presently, Massey is the co-chair of the Black Association of Documentary Filmmakers, West (BAD-West) in Los Angeles and an adjunct professor at Pasadena City College. He has been the recipient of several prestigious awards, including The Martin Ritt Scholarship; the Eastman Kodak Second Century Honoree; induction into The Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame; The National Education Association for the “Advancement of Learning through Broadcasting”; the National Black Programming Consortium “Prized Pieces”; PBS “Innovator Teacher’s Award”; and the Heartland Film Festival’s Crystal Heart. Additionally, Massey is a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Co-Producer/Writer Dawn Alexander is mother of a young African American male, and as such created this project with a deeply felt commitment to his safety and the safety of other young black men in America. When Justice Isn’t Just is her most recent attempt to address justice since: “Justice can only exist within the coordinates of equality, and is the constant and perpetual disposition to render every person his due.”

 

September 9, 2016

Three narrative films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:16 pm

Although I’ve seen at least a half-dozen documentaries on the Arab Spring, none of them conveys the outrage against human dignity and freedom that led to the revolt better than the narrative film “As I Open My Eyes” that opens at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema today.

Set in Tunisia in 2010, Leyla Bouzid’s characters are educated and middle-class but it is easy to extrapolate from their privileged frustration what made street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi immolate himself in December of that year.

The main character is an 18-year old female named Farah (Baya Medhaffar) who lives in a large and comfortable apartment in Tunis with her mother Hayet (Ghalia Benali) who is elated by the news that her daughter has been accepted into medical school. Her father Mahmoud (Lassaad Jamoussi) works as a mining foreman in a distant city only because a job closer to home would necessitate joining the party of dictator Ben Ali, an act that would compromise his principles and self-esteem.

Farah’s main interest, however, is performing in night clubs as the lead singer of a rock band that is an eclectic mix of traditional harmonies and hard rock using both electric guitars and the oud, a string instrument that has been around for 5000 years. And most importantly, they are protest musicians singing about the country’s inequities. Since a large part of the film consists of them in performance, it is a little bit like a musical drama. The music was composed by Iraqi Khyam Allami and the lyrics were written by the Tunisian writer Ghassan Amami.

Like all young people, Farah values her independence and freedom more than anything. After a neighbor connected to Ben Ali’s party warns her mother that her daughter is looking for trouble, she orders her to stop performing and focus on medical school. When Farah insists that she is obligated to sing with the band in an upcoming major gig, her mother says no. On the night of the gig, Farah locks her mother in her bedroom and joins the musicians in a rousing performance that like all others recently has attracted undercover cops keeping an eye on opposition to the dictatorship.

As might be expected, her rebellion antagonizes her mother to the point of sending her off to live with relatives far from the temptations of Tunis. After the two arrive at a bus depot, Farah walks off for a minute but does not reappear. Perhaps she has decided to stay in Tunis and continue rebelling against her mother and Tunisia’s injustices? Her mother and her band members discover the awful truth a day later. She was picked up by the cops and interrogated harshly. They wanted to know who wrote the lyrics for their signature song “As I Open My Eyes”. They taunt her. Why hesitate from naming names? One of your band members is already working for us.

Her travails reflect the contradictions that led young middle-class people to join the Jasmine Revolution that was the opening salvo of the Arab Spring. Her experience was a variation on what director Leyla Bouzid experienced. She ran a cine-club with friends, one of whom they eventually learned was a police informant.

In the press notes, Bouzid describes her take on Tunisian events over the past five years. Her words sound as if they were lifted from Gilbert Achar’s “Morbid Symptoms”, an account of the impasse facing young revolutionaries in the region:

When the revolution happened, the desire was very strong to film and represent it. Many documentaries were shot then, all full of hope, all focused on the future. I, too, really wanted to film. Not the revolution, but what everyone had lived through and been subjected to: the suffocating everyday life, the total power of the police, the surveillance, the fear and paranoia of the Tunisian people over the past 23 years.

The revolution (or revolts, points of view are divergent) surprised the entire world, but it didn’t come from nowhere. We couldn’t just all of a sudden sweep away decades of dictatorship and turn towards the future without examining the past. For me it was obvious that we had to quickly review the past while the tide of freedom continued to flow.

Like most Tunisians, my euphoria was strong at first, followed by successive phases of enchantment and disenchantment. For the film, I didn’t want the range of emotions linked to ongoing events to influence me. My only guide was trying to consistently follow the emotional journey traveled by the characters during the historical period being told. The goal was to be as accurate as possible in a work of fiction anchored in a specific historical context.

“As I Open My Eyes” is certain to be one of my picks for best foreign films of 2016. Not only is it gripping drama; it is a psychologically and socially complex look at Tunisian realities. Furthermore, it is implicitly a commentary on the difficulties of social change in this period of history when the ideals of young progressive-minded people is thwarted by objective conditions that evoke Marx’s observation in the 18th Brumaire: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Also opening today at the Paris Theater and Angelika Film Center in NY is “Come What May”, a French film directed by Christian Carion whose 2005 film “Joyeux Noël” dramatized the fraternization of English, French and German troops on Christmas Eve, December 1914. Like that film, his latest involves men at war but in much grimmer circumstances. It recounts the migration of more than a million Frenchmen from the north of the country toward the south in May 1940 to flee the invading Nazis.

This event resonated deeply with Carion whose mother took part in this migration.

The film begins in Germany as single dad Hans (August Diehl) is about to sit down with his young son Max (Joshio Marlon) for breakfast. As they make small talk, the phone rings. It is Hans’s comrade warning him that the Gestapo is on its way to arrest him. Since Hans is a Communist, he indeed has reasons to worry.

In the next scene, we see Hans and Max working on a farm in northern France owned by Paul, the village’s mayor. When we discover that Paul has named one of his draft horses Hitler, we become worried about the father and son who have told him that they were Belgians. (Germans aroused suspicions, whatever their ideology.) We become relieved when Paul informs them that the horse got that name because it was so troublesome, always looking for fights with the other horses.

When the local cops discover that Hans lacks proper documents, they haul him off to jail in a nearby city. While he is there, word comes down that the village must evacuate. The villagers put everything they can carry into horse-drawn carts and head out on the open road. This leaves Max in the care of Paul, his wife and Max’s schoolteacher who rides ahead of the column as a scout, exactly the role that Carion’s mother played in 1940.

Meanwhile, as the Nazis storm into the city where Hans is jailed, the cops release him and the other prisoners in the ensuing melee. When the British troops stationed there fight a rear guard action against the Nazis, Hans runs into a Scottish officer who has lost all his outnumbered men in gun battles. With him in tow, they head off to Paul’s village where they hope to meet up with Max and the friends he has made there. Upon arriving, Hans sees Max’s message to him on the school blackboard telling him that he is okay and hopes to be rejoined with him. From that point on, the film combines the human drama of father and son seeking to be together again with the social drama of French villagers trying to stay alive. In one scene, German fighter planes fire on them mostly out of the same genocidal imperatives Russian bombers follow when they fly over East Aleppo. As I mentioned in my review of “Sharps War” yesterday, this kind of war crime occurred with some regularity as seen in the documentary.

Despite the grim subject matter, the film has a pastoral quality as the villagers sleep in the open air and walk down roads that look like they were lifted from a Renoir landscape. In the press notes, Carion states: “My mother told me that the weather that month was the best she’d ever seen. It was the hottest month of the 20th century. They slept out under the stars. My mother was a scout on her bicycle, like the teacher in the film. Just like her, my mother didn’t always reveal what she had seen. The world was turned on its head. But for someone aged 14 at the time, it must have been amazing. I always tried to keep in mind that vital energy, which guided us during the writing of the film.”

An essay on the historical context of the French Exodus by Oliver Wieviorka appears in the press notes. Wieviorka is a specialist on WWII and the French Resistance whose paternal grandparents were Polish Jews that were arrested in Nice during World War II and died at Auschwitz. He writes:

The Exodus remains a paradoxical phenomenon. For many, it was a terrible trial, but for others, it represented adventure or first love. It often revealed the realities of war and the terrible things one learns in a country at war, but sometimes it meant the discovery of solidarity and new horizons for people who previously had never left the confines of their village. Above all, it forced individuals to choose. Some submitted to the fatality of defeat, trusting a veteran marshal with their fate. Others, however, refused to believe the propaganda, flocking to enlist in unprecedented numbers with the Resistance or with General de Gaulle’s Free French. As such, the experience of setting out on the road was, to a large extent, a decisive factor in people’s subsequent fates, inspiring some to give in, and others to stand up and be counted. Lastly, and perhaps above all, the Exodus reflects the total collapse – both politically and militarily – of a country that had, until that point, believed itself to be invincible. This perhaps explains why this event is still largely absent from the national memory. However, millions of French people’s memories still bear a wound that continues to bleed today.

“Come What May” is a beautiful film with a film score by the legendary Ennio Morricone that has the same mixture of awe and horror as “Night of the Shooting Stars”. It is a reminder of the plight of refugees during warfare, a subject that is unfortunately as timely today as it was in 1940.

Scheduled to be screened at the upcoming NY Film Festival and set for general release on December 16th, “Neruda” is a brilliant work of art that would likely come crashing to earth if too much analysis was invested into trying to understand the point of the film.

Although based on real characters, they function much more as symbols in a drama that pits a world-renowned Communist poet and Senator against the chief of police in Chile in 1948 as the cold war kicks in. Neruda, who is played brilliantly by Luis Gnecco, is a bourgeois libertine who has taken up the cause of the working class despite his distance from their lives. In one memorable scene, he is approached by a working class woman in a party thrown by the CP who professes love of his poetry despite his inability to really understand what her life is like.

When Chile’s president Gabriel Videla orders the cops to round up CP’ers, including Neruda, he puts the top cop Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal, who played Che Guevara in “The Motorcycle Diaries”) on the case. Peluchonneau is ambivalent about Neruda. To prove his mettle as top cop, he is anxious to track him down but he also admires his poetry. When Neruda discovers that he is on his trail, he leaves traces of his writing behind for the detective to ponder.

Since director Pablo Larrain made “No”, a film in which Gael García Bernal played an adman who works behind the scenes to assist leftists organizing a no vote against Pinochet staying in power, there is little doubt about his politics. While he certainly could have made a film about the earlier generation’s resistance to the Pinochet of their day, he chose instead to make a film about the role of the radical artist in bourgeois society with Peluchonneau serving as a kind of perverse muse to Neruda who becomes enraptured by the idea of living on the lam.

If Larrain had chosen to make the kind of film I would have made, he would have spent much more time exploring the relationship between Neruda and the dictator Videla. It turns out that Neruda was Videla’s campaign manager in 1946 in accord with the CP and other left groups backing of the bourgeois politician. Once or twice, this misguided political strategy is brought up in the film but only as background.

Despite my obvious preference for the kind of films that Gillo Pontecorvo made, I found “Neruda” totally captivating and recommend it without qualification. The dialog is witty, the performances are great and the cinematography stunning.

September 8, 2016

Three Documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:13 pm

What Charles Ferguson did for (or to, more exactly) Wall Street in his Academy Award winning 2010 documentary “Inside Job”, Steve Mims has now done with “Starving the Beast”, a shocking film about the “starving” of state universities by rightwing politicians opening tomorrow at the IFC Center in NY. Essentially the same neoliberal con artists that concocted the mortgage-based securities bubble that brought down the banking system in 2008 are now busily at work hollowing out flagship universities like the University of Wisconsin in the name of “reform”. Does it matter to those who idolize Ayn Rand that their policies are undermining the future viability of capitalism itself? Apparently not.

As someone who worked at Columbia University for 21 years, I began reading the Chronicle of Higher Education on a daily basis mostly as a way of keeping on top of IT developments at American universities. Since I was also a long-time socialist, I could not help but notice one article after another reporting on the corporatization of the university. Billionaires were gaining control over places like the U. of Wisconsin through the leverage they enjoyed through Republican Party governors that saw most professors as the enemy of the free enterprise system. Mims, who is as skilled as Ferguson at getting rightwing creeps to hoist themselves on their own petard, allows someone like Jay Schalin of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy to openly question the need for studying history, literature, art or anything that is not directly related to the goal of churning out graduates destined for the corporate world.

What is the Pope Center, you might reasonably ask. I had never heard of it myself. One of the chief benefits of “Starving the Beast” is how it lifts up the rock and allows the creepy, crawly things who fund or work for rightwing think-tanks to be exposed to daylight. The man behind the Pope Center is Art Pope, North Carolina’s version of the Koch brothers, whose deep pockets helped elect Republican Governor Pat McCrory in 2012. In an article on Schalin and the Pope Center that appeared in the Nation Magazine, Zoë Carpenter wrote:

Up at the podium, Schalin laid out part of the Pope Center’s vision for “renewal at the university,” which, he argued, could be achieved through the propagation of privately funded academic centers. In a related report Schalin described how these centers would balance “academia’s gradual purging” of courses dedicated to “liberty, capitalism, and traditional perspectives,” more specifically by supplanting the “French communist[s]” Derrida, Bourdieu, and Foucault with Ayn Rand. Schalin assured his audience that these centers wouldn’t be political—though, he said, “when you study capitalism on an objective basis, you are going to notice this very strong correlation between prosperity and capitalism—and that’s okay to bring up.”

One of the victims of the rightwing hostile takeover of the UNC was Gene Nichols, who was director of the Poverty Center, a research group that was on the school’s Board of Governors hit-list. This gang and the school’s president Margaret Spellings, who was George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education, considered Nichols to be some kind of criminal subversive even though the center’s main focus was on North Carolina’s social and economic problems. To even identify them was considered “advocacy” by the new guard at the school and had to be punished.

The theoretical basis for the neoliberal restructuring of state universities can be found in the 1997 book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” written by MIT business school professor Clayton Christensen that put forward the theory of “disruptive innovation”, which was a bastardized version of Schumpter’s “creative destruction”. Four years later Christensen followed up with another book titled “The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out” that was widely embraced by the sorts of people Art Pope foisted on the UNC.

Other schools have been under siege from the corporatist board members appointed by Republican governors, some of which became front page news. The film goes into considerable depth explaining the background of such battles including the forced resignation of the University of Virginia’s president Teresa A. Sullivan who resisted a move toward online classes. For many in the Art Pope/Koch Brothers think tank realm, the goal is to drastically reduce the number of tenured professors and replace them with a cadre of academic superstars who would lecture to students over the Internet in combination with adjunct foot soldiers responsible for grading papers and other grunt work. Ironically, this school was created by Thomas Jefferson in keeping with the humanist traditions of all great universities, even though Jefferson himself was a slave owner and advocate of Empire. Students and faculty at the U. of Va. rallied against the firing and Sullivan held on to her job.

It was in Texas where the onslaught was deepest and most extreme. With a governor like Rick Perry, schools such as the U. of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M would be the guinea pigs in corporatist “reform”. Professors at Texas A&M, which has the reputation of being a rightwing school with a football program that produced the execrable Johnny Manziel, were appalled when the school began maintaining a spreadsheet that evaluated them on the basis of how much revenue they were generating. The Huffington Post reported:

For years, state legislators, parents, and even his own boss had been hectoring Frank Ashley, the vice chancellor of academic affairs for the Texas A&M University System, to tell them whether his highest paid professors were worth their often fat paychecks.

Ashley responded with a spreadsheet that listed each of his faculty members according to how much money they made or lost for the university.

The study calculated an individual professor’s “revenue” based on the tuition he or she brought to the school — a product of the number of students taught — and the amount of research awards and grants he or she obtained, among other factors. The greater the number of classes and students taught, the greater the revenue. If a professor’s annual salary was lower than the amount of revenue generated, it was black. Otherwise, it was red.

Of the 50 highest compensated faculty members, only five appeared to be in the black and earning their keep. The rest were crimson.

When Texas A&M president Mike McKinney became convinced that such an approach was counterproductive and took steps to oppose it, he was fired.

At the U. of Texas, it was open warfare as Perry and his flunkies tried to get rid of the school’s president. Perry had installed Wallace L. Hall, Jr. on the board of regents, where he began a campaign to find some excuse to remove Bill Powers and find someone more amenable to Perry’s “disruptive innovation” goals. Finally, they used the excuse that Powers had influenced the admissions office to accept the sons and daughters of wealthy alumni who had made major contributions to the endowment, even though they had low grades. Someone likened this to Claude Rains being shocked that gambling was going on at Rick’s.

Perry and Hall were closely connected to a character named Jeff Sandefer who made millions in the oil business and like Art Pope in North Carolina decided to use his clout to “reform” the U. of Texas, where he had taught a class in the business school on a part-time basis. When the school decided to bring in tenure-track professors rather than use part-time businessmen, he quit and started his own business school in Austin. While nobody would begrudge someone getting pissed off and taking his football home with him, Sandefer wasn’t finished. He cooked up something called “seven breakthrough solutions” that Perry presented to the board of regents for implementation.

Since one of Perry’s appointees had written a paper titled “Is Academic Research a Good Investment for Texas?” that concluded that it wasn’t, there was obviously a very deep conflict between Perry’s men and the old guard at the U. of Texas and Texas A&M whose educational philosophy hearkened back to Thomas Jefferson who had written:

An amendment of our constitution must here come in aid of the public education. The influence over government must be shared among all the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates of the ultimate authority, the government will be safe; because the corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth: and public ones cannot be provided but by levies on the people. In this case every man would have to pay his own price. The government of Great-Britain has been corrupted, because but one man in ten has a right to vote for members of parliament. The sellers of the government therefore get nine-tenths of their price clear. It has been thought that corruption is restrained by confining the right of suffrage to a few of the wealthier of the people: but it would be more effectually restrained by an extension of that right to such numbers as would bid defiance to the means of corruption.

Yes, I know. Jefferson was a skunk but he got this much right at least. An informed citizenry is necessary for democracy. Is there any more proof needed to see what happens when that requirement is neglected than the 2016 election?

Finally, let me recommend a visit to the film’s website and a look at the documents section that has 128 articles on the crisis of the state university system. Steve Mims has done an enormous service by making this film and being an advocate for the traditional values of higher education that I benefited from at Bard College in the early 60s. In the press notes, Mims describes his goal in making this critically important film:

The film takes the shape of a story of 35 years of state funding reductions resulting in a transfer of financial burden from the state to students via tuition and fees and programs introduced through market-oriented think tanks to radically reform the public university system.

Beyond that, though, we got to a larger, philosophical issue:  the mission of public universities and how that mission is changing. These schools were conceived as a public good – an investment in the young as future citizens and leaders of the states in which they reside. Today, many see these schools as providing monetary value to individual students, who, in a free market, should alone bear the cost of that education. Furthermore, many also question the tax-payer worthiness of some course content offered in public higher education, arguing, ultimately, for a re-evaluation of the very ideas suitable for discussion in tax-payer underwritten schools.

That struck us as very interesting. Luckily for us, we found and interviewed people from all sides of these issues, and we got to meet some of the smartest people across the country who shared with us their stories and opinions about what turns out to be a pivotal moment in public higher education in the United States.

Also opening tomorrow at Cinema Village in NY is “Landfill Harmonic”, an inspiring (a word I don’t often use but in this case it applies) film about the children of Cateura who play musical instruments fashioned from materials found in Asuncion, Paraguay’s garbage dump.

I first heard about them in a Sixty Minutes segment that was aired three years ago. It seems that Fabio Chavez, who had begun working at the landfill as an environmental engineer, got the idea to teach music to the kids as part of a general effort to improve the quality of life.

Since Chavez is an uncommonly warm and supportive man, the children flocked to his classes until the demand for training exceeded the supply of instruments. Nicolás “Cola” Gomez, a guajero (the Spanish term for trash recycler) who had also worked earlier in life as a carpenter and wood worker got the idea to construct instruments from discarded tin cans and pieces of wood in the Cateura dump. Watching the children play these instruments is something of a miracle considering the cognitive dissonance between a violin made of empty cans and the strains of Mozart it produces.

The narrative arc of the film is quite simple. The kids get better and better at playing these instruments and begin touring everywhere in the world to great acclaim. In some ways, the film is reminiscent of “Buena Vista Social Club” but with the differences over how Paraguay and Cuba treat their young people. In Cuba the state provides resources to educate the sons and daughters of campesinos to become musicians, dancers and artists while in Paraguay it is up to individuals and charities to extend support.

When I became a socialist in 1967, one of the main motivations was to help make it possible for every child to realize their full potential. If people were kept in poverty, it meant that a future Beethoven or Jonas Salk would be thwarted by the conditions of life that were thrust upon them by a class-divided society. Cuba gives you a little flavor for what that future world will look like while “Landfill Harmonic” will demonstrate the possibilities that exist everywhere under a world socialist system. As CLR James put it, every cook can govern. So can every child play Mozart as long as they have the talent to do so. The job is to provide the standard of living so that no obstacles block them from achieving their goals.

Also opening tomorrow at Cinema Village is “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps War”, a Ken Burns documentary about a Unitarian Minister and his wife who went to Europe in 1939 to help Jews escape Nazi persecution. Since the narration is by Tom Hanks, you might get the impression that the film is cut from the “Schindler’s List” cloth. While this is true to some extent, Burns allows the events to speak for themselves as would be dictated by the norms of the genre. Documentaries are required to stick to the facts more or less while fictional films like “Schindler’s List” veer toward the melodramatic.

While there is little likelihood that Waitstill and Martha Sharp were in any danger of being sent to a concentration camp given their American citizenship, there were enormous strains on them in working in such a high pressure environment with the lives of many people at stake, including children. They had left their own kids at home just to be able to carry out their mission more effectively.

Among the interviewees was Justus Rosenberg, the 95-year old Bard College professor emeritus who was profiled in the NY Times on April 16 this year for his work with the rescue effort. He described the chaos that descended on France immediately after the Nazi invasion in 1939 that led to an exodus of more than a million of its citizens to the southern part of the country, an event depicted in “Come What May”, a narrative film I will be reviewing tomorrow.

Among the people rescued by the Sharps was Lion Feuchtwanger, a novelist who was a fierce critic of the Nazis and who influenced Berthold Brecht. The Sharps were involved with a risky and perhaps even dangerous mission to get him out of France, into Spain, and from there on a ship bound to the USA.

About fifteen years ago I read Feuchtwanger’s “Jew Suess” on the advice of Michael Smith, the ex-SWPer and well-known radical lawyer. I was interested in finding out more about tax farming, the bailiwick of court Jews in the Middle Ages, since my last name means “counting house of a tax farmer” in Yiddish.

The novel was based on the real life of Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, a court Jew who engaged not only in tax farming in the 17th century but in early forms of manufacturing—a sort of transitional figure between feudalism and capitalism.

As it happens, the Nazis bowdlerized the novel and made an anti-Semitic film that was totally at odds with Feuchtwanger’s much more nuanced presentation. In 2010 I reviewed a documentary titled “Harlan—In the Shadow of Jew Süss” about the film’s director Veit Harlan who was almost as well-known as Leni Riefenstahl.

From my review:

Jew Süss, made in 1940, is set in the 18th century and is based on historical events involving a Jewish financier Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, who was one of the Duke of Württemberg “court Jews” and despised by the masses who found him a convenient scapegoat for the Duke’s misrule. In Harlan’s movie, Süss becomes a grotesque arch-villain. So effective he was in turning the character into a stereotypical receptacle of hatred that Heinrich Himmler laid down the law that all cops and SS members had to see the movie.

Veit Harlan always defended himself as being forced to make such movies, even when he was charged with war crimes. We learn from one of his children that the judge who ruled in his favor was the same one who during WWII sentenced a Ukrainian woman to beheading because of a petty crime.

His oldest son was a staunch Hitler Youth and initially collaborated on screenplays with his father before turning radically against him, even setting fire to movie theaters that showed Veit Harlan’s postwar films as the press notes for the documentary relates. It adds:

In the early years of the Federal Republic, he fought former Nazis in high positions. In 1948 Thomas moved to Paris, later becoming a Nazi-hunter in Poland who delivered documents for thousands of war-crime proceedings. Himself a director of several powerfully political films, he was also an anarchist and Communist revolutionary in Portugal and Chile, the darling of Rome’s glitterati and a close friend of actor Klaus Kinski. He remembers many pleasant moments with his father; but Jew Süss he calls a “murder instrument.”

Veit Harlan always insisted that he had nothing against Jews. Believe it or not, he said that some of his best friends were Jews and that he even had a Jewish doctor. But of most interest in deciphering his eventual transformation into arch-Nazi propagandist, his first wife Dora Gershon was a Jew who left him for a Jewish man. She died in Auschwitz in 1943. One of his daughters explains his anti-Semitism as being personally grounded in this affront that he took bitterly.

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