Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 19, 2017

Documenting Discontent: Talking With Jamsheed Akrami About Iranian Cinema

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 3:16 pm

Three years ago Jeff St. Clair affixed the title “Is Abbas Kiarostami the World’s Most Talented Film-maker?” to my review of the Iranian director’s 1999 masterpiece “The Wind Will Carry Us”. I, of course, would not only answer yes to his rhetorical question but would go one step further and argue that Iranian filmmakers collectively have been making the greatest films for the past 30 years at least. They are the equivalent of the French nouvelle vague of the 1950s and early 60s but paradoxically produce great films under the heavy constraints of a clerical state that not only puts obstacles in their path but drives some of the elite figures into exile or in the case of Jafar Panahi kept under house arrest.

Recently I was fortunate enough to view four documentaries about Iranian film by Jamsheed Akrami, a Professor in the Communications Department of William Paterson University in New Jersey, that were made between 2000 and 2013 and are now available from Arab Film Distribution, which markets DVDs to institutional customers such as university libraries and film departments.

The price is too steep for the average CounterPunch readers but I strongly urge film professors, Mideast studies faculty members and any other academics concerned about the problems of artists in an authoritarian society to set aside money for the films when they are preparing their budget for the next fiscal year. Akrami, who has a supreme mastery of Iranian politics and cinema, is an accomplished interviewer who adroitly blends the words of these stellar filmmakers with excerpts from their work that are spellbinding.

Although I have reviewed well over twenty films by Iranian directors since the early 2000s, including nearly every film Abbas Kiarostami has made, and have read scholarly treatments on Iranian film, I was surprised by how little I knew while watching Akrami’s documentaries. Even if you have never seen an Iranian film, the documentaries will still engage you intellectually and politically since they relate to the nagging problem of artistic freedom globally.

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May 18, 2017

Abacus: Too Small to Jail

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:53 pm

Opening tomorrow at the IFC Center in NYC, “Abacus: Too Small to Jail” is a documentary that chronicles the five year legal struggle of the founder, top officers (his daughters) and lower-level staff to defend themselves against District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. (the son of Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State) who charged them with bank fraud felonies having absolutely no merit.

The Abacus Federal Savings Bank was a mom-and-pop operation located on the Bowery in Chinatown between a herb medication shop and a noodle parlor. It was founded by lawyer and real estate investor Thomas Sung in 1985 to meet the needs of the immigrant community that distrusted the big banks that operated in Chinatown. Even if they had Chinese tellers and managers, it was nearly impossible for an immigrant to get a loan or a mortgage.

Things were going very well for the bank until 2009 (it had expanded to six branches) when a loan officer ripped off a husband and wife looking to buy their first home. He conned them into giving him $2500 as a way of lubricating the deal and falsified the papers needed for the closing. The couple lost their $72,000 deposit, more than two years salary. They reported the theft to the police, naming the loan officer as the culprit. By then, Thomas Sung had fired the loan officer, opened up an internal investigation and reported the findings to the police and federal authorities.

Normally, this would have not been treated as a criminal case and the bank would have offered restitution to the couple but that would not satisfy Cyrus Vance Jr. Instead he decided to prosecute the bank, two of its supervisors, and nine of its former employees on a hundred-and-eighty-four-count indictment that included charges of residential-mortgage fraud, falsification of business records, and conspiracy. The Abacus employees, all Chinese-American, were paraded through the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse, handcuffed together, as if they were members of a drug cartel. Some faced a maximum sentence of twenty-five years in prison.

Could it not be more obvious that they were scapegoats in a case that was in sharp contrast to Citibank, Chase Manhattan and Bank America not suffering a single arrest even though trillions of dollars were lost because of fraud?

It turned out that with only a handful of exceptions, everybody who applied for a loan at Abacus was treated fairly. The problem for the bank is that many of the loan applications seemed fishy. It was not unusual for someone that declared $25,000 income on their tax returns would be eligible for an $800,000 mortgage. The prosecution made the case that the bank was committing fraud in the same way that the banks were pushing low interest loans to low-income people whose mortgages were collateralized and packaged as very secure investments. What the defense attorney attempted to show was that the Chinatown bank customer operated in a cash economy and that the reported income did not reflect their true wealth. When one defendant was asked how they knew the customer would be able to pay off the mortgage, he replied that he eats at his restaurant every week and knows that he was very solvent.

While most of the film examines the hypocrisy of the prosecutors against the backdrop of Chinese immigrant culture, the most appealing part of the film was the unintentional comedy of bank CEO Thomas Sung and his three daughters who were constantly bickering with their unflappable father.

The film continually refers back to the Frank Capra chestnut “It’s a Wonderful Life” that has a plot similar to this documentary. I enjoyed the documentary much more.

May 12, 2017

Andrzej Wajda, Art and the Struggle for Freedom

Filed under: art,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:44 pm

May 12, 2017

“Afterimage” opened theatrically in NYC at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on May 19th, to be followed at the Laemmle Theaters in LA a week later. Made in 2016 by Polish director Andrzej Wajda in his ninetieth year and just before his death, it incorporates the dominant theme in a filmmaking career going back to 1955—namely the Polish national struggle that has been defined by its relationship to Russia for hundreds of years.

“Afterimage” is based on historical events surrounding the Stalinist persecution of Władysław Strzemiński, an abstract artist who paid dearly for speaking out against Socialist Realism in 1950, just as the Polish United Workers’ Party was consolidating its grip on the nation. Strzemiński, who lost an arm and a leg as an officer in WWI, never let that disability stand in the way. In 1918, he attended classes at the First Free State Workshops (SVOMAS) in Moscow, where he first made contact with Casimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin. He became Poland’s most passionate advocate of Russian futurism and returned to his country in full support of the Russian Revolution and the bold artistic experimentation of the Communist nation’s heroic early years.

In 1945 he co-founded the State Higher School of the Visual Arts (SHSVA) in Lodz, where he lectured on art theory and history. The school created a Neo-Visual Room that displayed a collection of his work that was based on the theory of Unism that was a synthesis of 20th century modernist trends, including Constructivism. This was a movement initiated by Vladimir Tatlin in 1913 for which art and revolution were mutually reinforcing. The Constructivists sought to make art accessible to the public and frequently created works for public festivals and street designs in the 1920s. For Strzemiński, this aspect of Constructivism was less attractive—no doubt a function of the USSR having turned into a Stalinist nightmare for workers and artists alike.

Unism stressed the complete unity of paintings based on internal laws emerging from visual affinities regardless of their origins. The title of the film originates from the importance of afterimages in this theory. As Strzemiński tells his students in the early moments of the film, they are what is left in the imagination after you close your eyes. Indeed, one of his experiments was to record optical impressions caused by looking at the sun such as the 1948 painting “Sun’s Aftersight. Woman at the window”.

The film begins brilliantly with Strzemiński customarily sitting on the floor of his apartment on the upper floor of a drab building in Lodz while he works on his latest canvas. All of a sudden a massive red sheet as tall is the building is draped across the edifice and covers his windows, robbing him of the necessary sunlight the “afterimages” artist relies on. He rises himself clumsily upon his one good leg, takes up his crutches and opens the windows. Without bothering to see what the red fabric was all about, he takes a kitchen knife and cuts large holes in order to continue with his work. Seconds later, we see what he took a knife to—a monumental portrait of Stalin. That was just the beginning of his clash with the New Order.

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May 5, 2017

Eugene V. Debs documentary to screen in NY on Monday, May 8th

Filed under: Film,socialism — louisproyect @ 4:24 pm

Yale Storm’s documentary “American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs” will screen May 8 at 9pm as part of the Workers Unite Film Festival at Cinema Village located at 22 East 12th Street in the Village (NYC). Yale will be coming in to do a Q & A after the screening.

This is an amazing film that was shown at the Socially Relevant Film Festival in March on the same day as a blizzard unfortunately. I reviewed the film before the festival and consider it a must-see for people on the left. From my review:

Using the technique pioneered by Ken Burns but with much more political acumen, Yale Strom draws upon photos of the battling Pullman strikers that really capture the intensity of the struggle. As a popular leader of the strikers, Debs was well on his way to becoming the tribune of the entire working class.

Drawing upon interviews with leftwing labor historians, including Nick Salvatore—the author of a Debs biography, Strom documents the remarkable geographical reach of both the IWW and the Socialist Party that Debs helped build. Debs was a contributor to “Appeal to Reason”, a socialist magazine that had a circulation of over a half-million at its height. The magazine’s offices were in Girard, Kansas, a place we would now associate with Trump voters. Indeed, the IWW and the SP reached the most oppressed members of the working class (fruit pickers, longshoremen, miners, lumberjacks) in the boondocks. Oklahoma, a state most liberals would consider particularly retrograde, was fertile territory for the radical left at the turn of the 20th century.

Last Men in Aleppo

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 1:56 pm


Winner of the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January, “Last Men in Aleppo” opened yesterday for a week’s run at the Metrograph in New York. It will open on May 18 at Laemmle’s in Los Angeles, with a nationwide rollout and VOD to follow. Nominally covering the same terrain as the 41 minute “The White Helmets” that was voted the best short documentary by the Academy Awards, this is a much darker film reflecting the desperation of people facing the imminent collapse of a rebel-controlled area that might have contained 250,000 people. The film was directed by Firas Fiyyad who was in attendance for the Q&A at the Metrograph last night. He was jailed twice and tortured during the early days of the Syrian revolt. The guards told him: “You’ll have double the amount of torture because you’re a filmmaker.”

Fiyyad filmed in East Aleppo throughout 2015 and 2016 often facing the same risks as the White Helmets who were singled out for attack, just like the local hospitals. If the goal was total war to stamp out terrorism, why not snuff out those responsible for saving lives? If a three-year old might grow up to join al-Qaeda, isn’t it better to take preemptive action?

The film follows two White Helmets on their daily rounds. Khalid is a clean-shaven, chain-smoking bear of man with two young daughters he dotes on. Apparently he is one of the infidels that managed to avoid the jihadists in East Aleppo described by Charles Glass in a New York Review of Books blog: “Yet many Aleppines say that government control relieves them of the jihadists’ obsession with requiring men to grow beards and women to cover themselves, banning cigarettes, forcing them to pray, and other intrusions into their private lives.” Like many others who view Assad as a lesser evil to the “jihadists”, the former Newsweek journalist can be relied upon to bend the truth in the interests of the war on terror.

Khalid’s partner is the twenty-something Mahmoud, who has lied to his parents about his whereabouts. He reassured them that he is in Turkey but has remained in East Aleppo because he sees saving lives as his duty. Repeatedly, we see Khalid and Mahmoud digging people—both living and dead—out of rubble. Modest to a fault, Mahmoud does not want to come across as a hero. When he visits one of the people he saved, he sums up his feelings: “I didn’t like that, I’m not going to visit anyone again because I feel like this is showing off, showing these people that I saved their lives and I’m not like that.”

When they are not at work, they chat about their situation with a mixture of sardonic humor and gloomy resignation to their fate. Trying to figure out why they stay, Khalid volunteers this assessment: it is better to live under siege and face death than in a refugee camp. This does not stop him from imploring an unnamed man to help smuggle him and his family into Turkey. Ultimately, Fiyyad’s film is a portrait of men living on the edge rather than a paean to the Syrian revolution that many Syrians, including Khalid, consider a lost cause.

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May 1, 2017


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:52 pm

My readers in the Toronto area might want to check out a documentary titled “PACmen” that will be shown at various locations starting tomorrow as part of the Hot Docs Festival.

This is a cinéma vérité about Ben Carson’s bizarre campaign in the 2016 Republican Party primary that whatever it lacks in substance certainly makes up for as morbid entertainment and a reminder of how backward the USA is, particularly from the point of view of the more civilized nation to the north.

Lacking interviews or commentary by political analysts, it is mainly a fly-on-the-wall observation of the strategy meetings of two separate PACs that raised millions of dollars in a futile effort. One PAC was a grass roots effort mounted by John Philip Sousa IV drawing small donations after the fashion of Bernie Sanders; the other was led by much wealthier and traditional Republicans—at least as traditional as you are going to get with people believing in a geek like Ben Carson.

The most fascinating aspect for me was the rank-and-file volunteers and lowly paid staff members who approached the whole thing as if it were a religious crusade. Every other word out of their mouth is Jesus and their entire purpose in supporting Carson is tantamount to saving the USA from the wrath of god as if it were Sodom and Gomorrah.

Both Carson and his supporters are Christian fundamentalists imbued with the belief that we are in the end times and the need to prepare for Armageddon. There is no question in my mind that many would welcome a nuclear war with Russia or whoever if a President Carson made a speech telling them that god instructed him to push the button. Not only that, Ted Cruz was not far behind in religious fanaticism.

I hate to say it but if it were a choice between Carson and Trump, we are probably better off with the vulgar nouveau riche real estate developer from Queens who seems to enjoy life thoroughly even if working people could matter less. I doubt that Trump believes in god and that is probably the most reassuring thing about having such a monster in the White House.

April 30, 2017

The Candidate

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:15 pm

Last November I wrote about the Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche retrospective at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) in New York that was among my most memorable film experiences that or any other year. Unknown to me before the series, I came away feeling that the French-Algerian Ameur-Zaïmeche ranked with the Dardenne brothers, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Jafar Panahi. If those names mean something to you, you’ll know that is high praise.

I also have high praise for whoever curated the films shown at the FIAF since they were and are a reminder that despite globalization and the heavy hand of Hollywood commercialism on film studios everywhere, France remains a cultural beacon. We are now blessed with a new series starting on Tuesday, May 2nd that should have enormous appeal for my readers in the New York area. Titled “Liberté, Égalité, Fantasy: French Politics on Film” and scheduled through May 30th and shown on Tuesdays at 4 & 7:30pm, it gathers together works that I have never seen except for the one at the top of the list.

  • The Candidate, dir. Niels Arestrup, Tuesday, May 2 at 4 & 7:30pm. Introduced at 7:30pm by Arun Venogopal, WNYC reporter.
  • Struggle for Life (La Loi de la jungle), dir. Antonin Peretjatko, Tuesday, May 9 at 4 & 7:30pm. Introduced at 7:30pm by Annie Bergen, WQXR host.
  • Pater, dir. Alain Cavalier, Tuesday, May 16 at 4 & 7:30pm.
  • Special Section, dir. Costa-Gavras, Tuesday, May 23 at 4 & 7:30pm.
  • Gaz de France, dir. Benoît Forgeard, Tuesday, May 30 at 4 & 7:30pm.

I plan to write about the films in the series each week, both for my own sake and for the cinephiles who rely on my reviews.

I had never heard of “The Candidate” before, but was familiar with the director Niels Arestrup who is also a screenwriter and director. He wrote the screenplay for this 2007 film and played Georges, a power broker in an unnamed French political party whose presidential candidate Michel Dedieu (Yvan Attal ) is like putty in his hands as the film begins.

Georges has decided that the best thing for his party is to lose the election since France is about to intervene in some third world conflict and it would be better not to face the same kind of backlash that the Republican Party in the USA suffered after Dubya invaded Iraq.

The original candidate had to drop out because he developed cancer (like much that happens in the film, that is only the official story) and Dedieu took his place. Considered wishy-washy, physically unimpressive, faltering in his grasp of facts and lacking charisma, Dedieu was chosen in the same way that the Washington Generals were chosen to play the Harlem Globetrotters.

In the course of the campaign, Dedieu figures out that he is nothing but a patsy and decides to challenge Georges, his handlers and the entire political establishment. Instead of reciting bland platitudes, he will speak truth to power even if it means that he is finished as a politician. The film has a vague similarity to the 1972 film of the same name that starred Robert Redford as a candidate for the governor of California who also shuns “packaging” but only with the encouragement of party leaders who see him as unelectable against a popular incumbent. If he doesn’t have a chance, why not let him say what he wants?

I may have seen 1972 film but it left no impression on me. If I live another 45 years, I am sure that I will remember every scene in Niels Arestrup’s film that is not only brilliantly written, directed and acted but is the most perceptive film about bourgeois political campaigns ever made.



April 21, 2017

Citizen Jane; The Activists

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:08 pm

Counterpunch, April 21, 2017

Documentaries That Punch

As a rule of thumb, political documentaries work best when they have a hero and a villain just like in narrative films. One of the most memorable examples is Michael Moore squaring off against Roger Smith in “Roger and Me”. Granted, the richer and more entrenched in the Democratic Party Moore has become, the more the likability factor has worn off. But back in 1989 who could not love the shambling son of an auto worker trying to track down and confront the corporate boss responsible for shutting down the GM plant in Moore’s home-town and other rust belt cities?

You can see the same sort of human drama in “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” that opens on April 21 at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York and on VOD platforms. Citizen Jane is Jane Jacobs, the author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” that was published in 1961 and was in its way as important as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” that was published a year later. If Carson’s book was a clarion call for preserving the integrity of the natural world, so was Jacobs’s book a call for preserving the integrity of the urban world, specifically New York City.

Jane Jacobs’s Roger Smith was Robert Moses, the “power broker” profiled in Robert Caro’s 1975 classic who was a symbol of the corporate-driven agenda of “urban renewal” that ran counter to Jacobs’s vision of urban spaces that grew organically from the bottom up, just like the flora and fauna of “Silent Spring”.

There were ties between Smith and Moses that might not be obvious at first glance but ultimately the “power broker” and the GM CEO shared a vision of American cities that privileged the automobile and saw the expressway connecting suburbs to the heart of the city as a kind of economic bloodstream that could make America great. Alfred Sloan, who was the CEO of GM in its early years, was deeply hostile to FDR and joined the American Liberty League, which was 1930s equivalent of the David and Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity.

But as WWII broke out, GM’s new CEO William Knudsen became Secretary of Defense just as his successor Charles E. Wilson would become under Eisenhower. The internecine ties between GM, the national-security state and the post-WWII economic recovery helped crystallize a “golden age” that both Michael Moore and Donald Trump in their own way seek to resurrect: the Chevrolet and the suburban tract home as the divine right of workers.

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April 19, 2017

The Lost City of Z

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:20 pm

“Lost City of Z” is a biopic about Percival Fawcett, a British military cartographer who became obsessed with the notion that a highly advanced civilization existed in the Amazon on the scale of the great empires to the North–the Incas, the Aztecs and the Mayans. The film starts in 1906 when he is sent by his commanders to the Royal Geographical Society to get his marching orders for a map-making project. In a border dispute between Brazil and Bolivia over access to rubber trees, a third party would be tasked to define the exact borders between the two nations and Fawcett would lead that expedition.

Probably the best thing about the film is a stunning performance by Charlie Hunnam, a 37-year old British actor best known for his portrayal of a gangster biker in FX’s “Sons of Anarchy”. When Brad Pitt decided not to play Fawcett, it opened the door to a much more qualified actor in every sense. Growing up in England, Hunnam embodies the stiff upper-lip demeanor of Captain Fawcett, an artillery officer and to the manor born. When he is being interviewed by the Royal Geographical Society’s top men, he is told that doing this job would redeem his family’s honor. His father had been a member of the society but died in shame as a squanderer of his family’s fortune.

Writer-director James Gray claims that class distinctions between Fawcett and the RGS’s establishment was paramount in his mind when he began developing the project. If so, he didn’t really succeed since Fawcett comes across just as Colonel Blimpish as all the rest of the men who were an integral part of the imperial mission of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Indeed, as Brian Hudson argued in “The New Geography and the New Imperialism 1870-1918” (Antipode, September 1977), exploring and mapmaking–the mission of the RGS–was at the heart of the late stage of capitalism examined by Hobson and Lenin:

In Britain officers of the armed forces, acting through the Royal Geographical Society, were amongst the most energetic champions of advanced geographical education The strength of military and naval influence in the society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is indicated by the fact that during that period normally between a third and a half of the thirty four council members were officers of the army and navy. Through the society these men helped to establish the teaching of geography in British universities. The Royal Geographical Society delegation to Oxford which made arrangements for the first British school of geography there, included representatives of both the army and navy. Holdich [RGS chief] himself, was amongst those who gave advice and assisted in the preliminary negotiations for the Oxford School of Geography which was established in 1899.

Gray also misses his target to some extent by overplaying the conflict between Fawcett and James Murray, an RGS fellow who accompanied him on an expedition to find the lost city in 1911. Murray, who oozes privilege from every pore, turned out to be ill-prepared for the grueling trek through the jungle, became seriously ill, and was sent home by Fawcett to save his life and allow the mission to plow ahead. Since Fawcett’s antagonists for the better part of 20 years were snakes, mosquitos, spiders, hunger, thirst, and hostile indigenous people rather than fellow Englishmen, Gray hoped to jazz up his screenplay with a subplot that does not mesh with the truly riveting central theme, namely the all-consuming drive to discover the lost city that Fawcett thought might have been covered in gold.

Gray makes no attempt to develop indigenous people of the rainforest as three-dimensional characters. Mostly they are stick figures to help advance the plot, often by drawing sharp contrasts between the Civilized and the Savage. In a key scene, as Fawcett and his crew are heading down a river, arrows and spears come raining down on them from a hostile tribe on the banks. He urges his not to use firearms against their attackers but to instead charm them by playing instruments they had brought along for entertainment and singing “Soldiers of the Queen”–almost like a snake-charmer and a cobra. This incident actually occurred on one of Fawcett’s expeditions as related by David Grann’s 2005 New Yorker magazine article titled “The Lost City of Z” that was expanded into a book and served as the foundation of Gray’s screenplay.

In order to understand why indigenous peoples were so hostile, one statistic might suffice. In 1540, there were about 100,000 native peoples living in the northeast region of Brazil. A hundred years later there were 9,000. Most had died because of a lack of immunity to European diseases just as was the case when another white explorer named Napoleon Chagnon came into their lives.

Unlike Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Percival Fawcett was a complex figure. Despite his colonizing mentality, he considered the indigenous peoples to be of superior ability, especially considering how they mastered their environment. Gray was faithful to Grann’s description of Fawcett’s contradictory attitudes toward the natives. From the New Yorker article:

As Fawcett completed his maps of the Amazon, he became fascinated by the tribes populating the region. Like many Victorians, he held views of indigenous Americans that were often blinded by racism. “There are three kinds of Indians,” he wrote. “The first are docile and miserable people. . . . The second, dangerous, repulsive cannibals very rarely seen; the third a robust and fair people who must have a civilized origin.” He shared the widely held notion that any advanced civilization in South America, if it had ever existed, must have had a European origin—in Phoenicia, say, or even Atlantis. John Hemming, a distinguished historian of Brazilian Indians, has called Fawcett a “Nietzschean explorer” who spouted “eugenic gibberish.”

Yet some anthropologists have also found in Fawcett’s writings a sensibility that was more enlightened than that of many of his contemporaries. He was an outspoken opponent of the destruction of Indian culture through colonization. “My experience is that few of these savages are naturally ‘bad,’ unless contact with ‘savages’ from the outside world has made them so,” Fawcett wrote. He studied many Amazonian dialects, and immersed himself in the rich legends and artistic traditions of the local tribes. He was amazed by shards of delicate ancient pottery that he had seen along the mouth of the Amazon, and by mysterious raised mounds of earth that were scattered through the rain forest. And he read early histories of South America, which revealed that the first Spaniards who visited the Amazon had described “numerous and very large settlements” and “many roads and fine highways inland.” All this suggested to Fawcett that there had once been a large, complex civilization in the Amazon which had been decimated over the centuries. Moreover, he theorized, remnants of that civilization might have survived in areas that had remained isolated from Westerners.

The epilogue to “Lost City of Z” states that Fawcett was vindicated even if he never found his El Dorado. In a groundbreaking article in the March 2002 Atlantic Monthly titled “1491”, Charles Mann describes an Amazon rainforest that had as complex a society as those in Mexico or Peru even if they did not produce immense pyramids or any other institutions we associate with class society including a priesthood. Mann described Beni, a Bolivian province as large as Illinois and Indiana combined. Referring to Clark Erickson, a U. of Pennsylvania archaeologist and specialist in pre-Columbian native society, Mann describes a world that was revealed in part in “Lost City of Z” even if there were no massive stone edifices (the rainforest has plenty of vegetation but hardly any stone.)

The Beni is a case in point. In addition to building up the Beni mounds for houses and gardens, Erickson says, the Indians trapped fish in the seasonally flooded grassland. Indeed, he says, they fashioned dense zigzagging networks of earthen fish weirs between the causeways. To keep the habitat clear of unwanted trees and undergrowth, they regularly set huge areas on fire. Over the centuries the burning created an intricate ecosystem of fire-adapted plant species dependent on native pyrophilia.

In 1925 Fawcett led his last expedition to find the lost city of Z with his son Jack and a small well-equipped group. Deep in the forest, they came upon a group of natives who were not charmed by British military anthems or any other enticement. They were certainly killed and their remains were never found. This gives the story of Percival Fawcett an Amelia Earhart quality that leaves the audience wondering what happened exactly.

I thought Gray lost a big opportunity to depict a possible fatal encounter that might have grown out of the colonizing arrogance that was always close to the surface despite Fawcett’s admiration for the region’s indigenous peoples.

In 2010, an unnamed contributor to “Murder Everywhere”, a group blog made up of “ten renowned crime writers from different corners of the world”, wrote a piece titled “The Death of Percy Fawcett” that relied on the word of Orlando Villas-Bôas, Brazil’s leading expert on indigenous peoples and a Fawcett-like explorer (but without the arrogance) who David Gann relied on as well.

He states that Gann chose not to include an account given to Villas-Bôas by an elder of the Kalapalos tribe who have admitted killing Fawcett and his party:

Grann, however, does not relate, and perhaps never discovered, three additional precipitating incidents. And those incidents, for Orlando Villas-Bôas, were of more moment than sickness and/or the absence of gifts. According to Orlando:

–Jack Fawcett, Percy’s son, urinated in the river upstream of the village, upstream of where the Kalapalos drew their drinking water. It was an affront to the entire tribe to do so.

–One of the members of Fawcett’s expedition shot a small animal. They brought it into the village and hung it up by a cord to preserve the meat from insects and small scavengers. One of the Indians came along and tried to remove a piece of the meat. An expedition member pushed him away. Another affront. The Kalapalos share food. Not to do is unacceptable behavior.

–A small child approached the white men and started playing with their goods. They pushed the child away. The child came back and did it again. One of the white men, in the European custom of the time, struck the child. And that was the greatest affront of all. The Kalapalos never strike their children.

That final incident, according to Orlando, sealed the fate of Fawcett and his men. The Indians waited until the next morning, allowed the expedition to get some distance down the trail and then ambushed and killed them all.

That, of course, would have required Gray to unearth the Mr. Hyde aspect of Percival Fawcett that might have made him appear much more like Aguirre than would have been desirable for a film with a generally likable lead character.

My advice is to see the film and think about a possible ending. Despite its thematic flaws, “The Lost City of Z” will stimulate your thinking, plus it is one of the most cinematically arresting films I have seen since “The Revenant”.

April 14, 2017


Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,former Soviet Union — louisproyect @ 1:11 pm

Corruption and Poverty in Bulgaria

Bykov has described his film as a treatment of the central dilemma facing his country: conscience versus survival. Now playing at the Film Forum in New York is a Bulgarian film titled “Glory” that is closely related to Bykov’s film thematically. Like Nima, Tzanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov) is a humble worker—a railway lineman who we first see setting his watch meticulously to a radio announcement before going off to work. This is important because linemen must be aware of the exact time to the second to avert oncoming trains.

After synchronizing his watch, Petkov meets up with his co-workers on the railroad tracks they are assigned to maintain. Walking a few dozen or so yards ahead of them, he stumbles across a most remarkable find: millions of dollars in Bulgarian currency strewn across the tracks—its origin unknown. Unlike the rest of his crew or most Bulgarians for that matter, Petkov thought the natural thing to do was contact the police.

His altruistic act turned him into an instant celebrity, something that the state railway corporation—the Bulgarian Amtrak in effect—decided to turn to its advantage. The head of its PR department is a woman named Julia Staykova (Margita Gosheva) who is the quintessential post-Communist hustler. Her main interest is to make an amalgam of this most unusual worker’s idealistic behavior with that of the crooked top executives she serves.

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