Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 17, 2018

Journey’s End

Filed under: antiwar,Film — louisproyect @ 5:33 pm

“Journey’s End” opened  yesterday at the Landmark Theater on 57th street. It is an antiwar film based on events that took place just about a century ago. A British company is in the trenches at Amiens, France in mid-March preparing for Operation Michael, a planned, massive German assault gathering material just across a “no-man’s land” that was about the length of a football field. Most of the action takes place over a 3 day period from March 19 to March 21, when the Germans overran the British. In three months at Amiens, 750,000 men would die while another 1 million would die before the war ended. Unlike all the patriotic gore surrounding “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour”, this is a portrait of war that is a close relative of “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Paths of Glory”.

The film is based on a 1928 stage play by R.C. Sherriff, a British army veteran who was badly wounded in Ypres in 1917. He was not particularly associated with the left and probably wrote the play more as a personal testament rather than propaganda (in the good sense). Indeed, after the critic J. B. Priestley (described in George Orwell’s dossier as “pro-Communist”) hailed it as a pacifist work, Sherriff shot back: “I have not written this play as a piece of propaganda. And certainly not as propaganda for peace.”

He had a long and successful career as a novelist, playwright and screenwriter, with films like “The Invisible Man”, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and “Four Feathers” to his credit. Less well-known is his screenplay for “This Above All”, which according to Wikipedia is about a veteran of the Dunkirk retreat who “having a crisis of conscience over what the war is being fought for and disgusted at the incompetence of the ruling elite…decides not to return to the Army and to go absent without leave.”

Although there are two very brief battlefield action scenes, most of “Journey’s End” takes place in the British bunkers occupied by Company C and has very much of a theatrical quality as the various men argue with each other or offer moral support in the face of certain death.

The three main characters are Captain Stanhope, the company’s officer who the war has turned into a nerve-shattered drunk, Osborne, an older second-in-commend nicknamed “uncle”, and Raleigh, a lieutenant fresh out of training and filled with hopeless illusions about trench warfare as if were a rugby match. He has wrangled an assignment to Stanhope’s unit because he was his classmate just a few years ahead of him and because he was his older sister’s boyfriend. Osborne is played by Paul Bettany, who also played the ship’s surgeon and amateur botanist in “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”. He is perfectly cast since he exudes common sense, wisdom and decency just as he did in the earlier film that unlike “Journey’s End” is Colonel Blimp incarnate (even if entertaining.)

The soldiers are fully aware that they are on death row. They have spotted a massive concentration of heavy artillery and tanks on the German side and have been given orders not to retreat. Suffice it to say that the three days depicted in the film are marked by extreme tension even if you can guess the outcome. All the actors are terrific and they are given great material to work with.

This is now the fifth adaptation of Sherriff’s play and probably the one most in harmony with the original. In the press notes, director Saul Dibb explains what attracted him to the play:

I felt it just had this incredible ring of truth to it. A really honest, really human account of what it was like to be there. Sherriff was a brilliant writer and he was writing from personal experience. We had the opportunity to make a very truthful account. The First World War was just a waste. It wiped out this whole generation, and for what? These people have been sacrificed. We just wanted to make it clear from the start that these are dead men walking. It’s not about slowly coming to understand it. All they come to understand, really, is what day it’s going to happen.


March 16, 2018

2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:02 pm

Lou Andreas-Salome, Paul Ree, Frederick Nietzsche

COUNTERPUNCH, March 16, 2018

CounterPunch readers in the Greater New York area should bookmark the 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival website and try to make it to tonight’s 7 PM screening of “Lou Andreas Salomé: The Audacity to be Free” that opens the festival. If you’ve seen and appreciated “The Young Karl Marx”, I can assure you that this German-language biopic will remind you that the genre is still capable of providing first-class entertainment and substance unlike Hollywood biopics about industrialists or self-destructive musicians. I saw press screenings for this film as well as very good documentaries about the Armenian diaspora and how eugenics was practiced at Ellis Island that reconfirmed the value of a film festival I have been covering for CounterPunch since it began in 2015. This year, the films are being shown at the Cinema Village, an outstanding venue for better quality films over the years.

The photo at the top of the article depicts in rather sadomasochistic terms Lou Andreas Salomé applying the whip to Paul Rée and Friedrich Nietzsche. This photo, whose taking is a key scene in the film, is provocative enough on its own terms to deserve pride of place in a photography museum. However, the story behind the photo deserves a full recounting, which is the purpose to a large part of Cordula Kablitz-Post’s 2016 film, finally viewable in New York—and hopefully across the USA before very long.

Like Alexandra Kollontai and Victoria Woodhull, Lou Salomé was a transformative feminist figure who challenged oppressive patriarchal norms. Although she was not a revolutionary, her boldness and independence arguably exceeded that of any woman from her time. Living between 1861 and 1937, her path crossed with some of the most important men of her generation. Besides Nietzsche and Rilke, she was one of the first women ever to practice Freudian psychoanalysis. If anything, her connections to Freud (possibly sexual as well as professional), Nietzsche and Rilke indicate a breadth of learning that is unrivaled. In every sense of the word, she was a renaissance woman equally conversant in philosophy, literature and psychology.

Continue reading


March 13, 2018

Our Blood is Wine

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:07 pm

Opening at the Village East Cinema on Friday is a film titled “Our Blood is Wine” (with a VOD roll-out soon afterward) that documents the history of winemaking in the Republic of Georgia. It was the product of master sommelier Jeremy Quinn’s curiosity about a tradition that goes back 8,000 years according to archaeological evidence. As is the case with wheat, another basic staple, winegrowing first appeared in Anatolia as well. The film was directed by Emily Railsback, who formed a production company in partnership with Quinn dedicated to understanding culture through the medium of beverages. In Georgia’s case, the film is appropriately titled since wine has a place in its culture that has persisted no matter the efforts of both Stalinism and capitalism to commercialize it. To my astonishment, I discovered in the film notes after watching “Our Blood is Wine” that Railsback made it on an iPhone.

Quinn functions pretty much the same way that Anthony Bourdain does in his visits to various parts of the world to simultaneously try the local cuisine and give his take on socio-political matters. The film consists of him visiting various vineyards that all employ the same technique that existed 8,000 years ago, namely the use of kvevris (spelled qvevris in the film). A kvevri is a clay vessel usually over six feet tall that is buried in the ground in order to allow fermentation to take place. After Georgia became part of the USSR in 1917, Stalin decided that more revenue could be generated by industrializing the winemaking process using stainless steel vessels even if it turned out an inferior product and undermined Georgia’s national identity. As Quinn visits various practitioners of an ancient art undergoing a renaissance, he often ends up like Bourdain sitting around a dinner table sampling wines and the Georgian cuisine with men and women breaking into the polyphonic style that distinguishes the country’s music. It is an altogether joyous pastime that makes me want to spend time there the next time I am in Turkey, the country immediately to its south.

In 1966, Georgian director Otar Iosseliani made a narrative film titled “Falling Leaves” whose hero is a young man who has become employed at a local wine collective where he is pressured to bottle inferior wine. When he challenges a bureaucrat to do things the right way, he is told that state-ordered productivity quotas permit no delays: “Look around you, this is no time for principles.” Excerpts from the film are sprinkled throughout “Our Blood is Wine” and make you yearn for seeing it in its entirety. You can see it on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1ZDuEkC9lw) but without subtitles alas.

We learn from the film that Georgia might be home to at least 500 different varieties of grapes, most of which were wiped out during the Stalinist era. But many remained in the backyards of Georgians who were permitted to make their own wine as long as they didn’t become decadent bourgeoisie in the process. The state only sanctioned Stalinist decadence.

The press notes include links to articles about new discoveries about Georgian wine made by anthropologist Patrick McGovern:

The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/13/science/georgiaoldest-wine.html

Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-ofscience/wp/2017/11/13/earliest-evidence-of-wine-found-in-giant-8000-year-oldjars/

BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-41977709

NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/11/13/563281665/georgianjars-hold-8-000-year-old-winemaking-clues

Food & Wine: http://www.foodandwine.com/news/worlds-oldest-wine-found

National Geographic: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/11/oldestwinemaking-grapes-georgia-archaeology/

I thought the National Geographic article took the most interesting tack with this lead: “Contrary to stereotypes, Stone Age people had a taste for finer things”. It adds:

The evidence adds a new wrinkle to our understanding of the Neolithic, a pivotal period when humans were first learning to farm, settling down and domesticating crops and animals. The gradual process, known as the Neolithic Revolution, began around 10,000 B.C. in Anatolia, a few hundred miles west of Gadachrili.

It’s increasingly clear that it didn’t take long for people to turn their thoughts to alcohol: Just a few thousand years after the first wild grasses were domesticated, the people at Gadachrili had not only learned the art of fermentation but were apparently improving, breeding, and harvesting vitis vinifera, the European grape. “They’re working out horticultural methods, how you transplant it, how you produce it,” McGovern says. “It shows just how inventive the human species is.”

Today, wines made in the traditional way are treasured globally by oenophiles, especially the Japanese who make pilgrimages to Georgia to see wine being made in kvevris. Much of the “productivist” tendency in Marxism that was embraced by both Stalinists and Trotskyists alike has overlooked how much “primitive” societies had so much to offer, especially given their classless nature. In the first chapter of “Stone Age Economics,” titled “The Original Affluent Society”, Marshall Sahlins put it this way in “Stone Age Economics”:

We are inclined to think of hunters and gatherers as poor because they don’t have anything; perhaps better to think of them for that reason as free. Their extremely limited material possessions relieve them of all cares with regard to daily necessities and permit them to enjoy life.

March 10, 2018

Life Itself

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:57 pm

In January, I reviewed “The Lovers and the Despot”, a fascinating documentary about how the father of North Korea’s current dictator was a bona fide cinephile, so much so that he kidnapped a couple of film stars from the south to help improve the north’s film industry that he considered overly propagandistic and just plain boring. What kind of films did Kim Jong-il go for? His tastes ran to Friday the 13th, Rambo and Hong Kong action films instead of socialist realism, according to Shin Sang-ok, the director he abducted. So, that should warn you about stereotyping the north.

“The Lovers and the Despot” was distributed by Magnolia, a company launched by the billionaire and cinephile himself Mark Cuban to help make offbeat art films and documentary available to the general public. I have a huge backlog of Magnolia DVD’s that have been sent to me on a regular basis for years now as part of its outreach to film critics taking part in awards ceremonies like NYFCO’s, a bargain basement version of the Oscars. These are the kinds of films I prefer to write about but I am under pressure at year-end to prioritize the DVD’s or digital screeners from the big studios like Sony or Fox since these are the ones that will likely have the inside track at our awards meeting. I have begun going through the Magnolia backlog recently and will repeat what I said last time. These are among the most interesting films being made today and a bargain rental for $3.99. The library can be browsed here: http://www.magnoliapictures.com/

After working my way through the 2015 and 2016 Magnolia DVD’s, I watched one from the top of the 2014 batch the other day that moved me profoundly. “Life Itself” is a documentary about Roger Ebert begun in 2012 and completed abruptly at the time of his death from cancer on April 4, 2013. It is hard slog in many ways since Ebert was deeply ravaged by the disease, having lost his lower jaw as a result of metastasizing thyroid cancer. Ebert was not shy about his appearance and was just as eager to share the experience of battling the disease in the hospital rooms he spent long periods in toward the end. I can only say that in the nearly 2 years I worked at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in NY, I never saw anybody more disfigured.

As someone with 1,054 film reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, the film probably meant more to me than the average person even though it will be moving to anybody who sees it since it is about a heroic struggle to live a full life under daunting circumstances. Like Cuban, Kim Jong-il and Ebert , I am a cinephile. While I hadn’t paid all that much attention to Ebert’s reviews in recent years, I used to regularly watch the show he did with Gene Siskel on PBS between 1975 and 1982, as well as their appearances on late night TV shows. Like Ebert, Siskel was  cut down by cancer but even more prematurely. After learning that he had brain cancer in May 1998, he died 9 months later at the age of 53.

After Ebert’s death, I wrote an obituary that you might want to have a look at: https://louisproyect.org/2013/04/05/roger-ebert-an-appreciation/. I offered these thoughts: “If I write…mostly out of a love for the medium than for money, I can at least say that this appeared to be Ebert’s motivation as well. It is too bad that we have so few journalists worthy of the name.” After seeing the wonderful “Life Itself”, I can only say that my respect for Ebert has grown a thousandfold.

“Life Itself” was directed by Steve James, who also directed “Hoop Dreams” and “Abacus”, the marvelous film about how an obscure and tiny bank in Chinatown was made a scapegoat for the financial industry’s criminal mortgage-backed securities scam. If there is anything clear about this film, it is that James was much more than a filmmaker. He was also a friend and critical pillar of support for Ebert. In the final moments of the film, we see James and Ebert messaging each other about the next interview for the film until Ebert basically says that he is checking out.

Testaments to Ebert are given by old friends he worked with at the Chicago Sun-Times and by noted film critics such as the NY Times’s A.O. Scott and the now retired Jonathan Rosenbaum who wrote for the Chicago Reader, an “alternative” weekly. I often find myself sitting in the same screening room with Scott and was gratified to learn from him that he has read my reviews. I was friendly with Rosenbaum at Bard College but lost track of him after I graduated. Like Scott and Ebert, Rosenbaum writes from a left perspective but more specifically Marxist.

We learn in the film that Ebert was influenced politically from his father who was an electrician and a life-long Democrat. When Ebert ended up at the U. of Illinois, he rapidly became the editor of the daily newspaper there, which was a major responsibility. The film pays attention to the powerful editorial Ebert wrote the day after a KKK bombing left six children dead in Birmingham. He wrote:

“The blood of these innocent children is on your hands,” Martin Luther King cried out to the governor of Alabama.  But that was not entirely the truth.  The blood is on so many hands that history will weep in the telling.  And it is not new blood.  It is old, so very old, and as Lady Macbeth discovered, it will not ever wash away.  It clings and waits and in its turn it kills again.

It was such writing that led him being hired by the Chicago Sun-Times just after graduation. Unlike the Chicago Tribune, this newspaper catered to the once-powerful unionized blue-collar workers in the city that included his father. Not too long afterwards, he became the paper’s film reviewer—the youngest at a major daily in the USA.

The most interesting part of the film dealt with the love-hate relationship between Siskel and Ebert. While my friend Paul Buhle, who was a classmate of Ebert’s at the U. of Illinois, regards Siskel as a reactionary, I don’t recall any political squabbles between the two. Mostly the disagreements were about film itself. I found the arguments compelling even though I can’t really identify with them. As a member of NYFCO for over a decade, I have never once argued with colleagues about a film except on one occasion, when they named “Zero Dark Thirty” best of 2012, a film that justified torture. I simply can’t get worked up one way or the other over films like “Lady Bird” or “Phantom Thread”.

Roger Ebert was never one to walk away from an argument. As I pointed out in my obit, when I wrote him a snide message taking exception to his favorable review of “Crash”, Paul Haggis’s coincidence-laden fable about racial reconciliation in Los Angeles, he must have been so shocked by being attacked from the left that he rose to the bait and wrote me back defending his review. About 4 or 5 exchanges took place that day, leaving me finally with an appreciation for his lack of snobbery and willingness to engage with a lout like me.

Responding to email was just one part of his engagement with the Internet. As Ebert lost his tongue along with his lower jaw, it was impossible for him to speak except with a computer like Stephen Hawking does. However, he was just as enthusiastic about the net’s possibilities across the board. We meet the web designer who created https://www.rogerebert.com/, a tremendous resource for his film reviews as well as his blog entries on a whole range of questions. The website is still going strong with new reviews by a staff of dozens.

Long before the internet became dominant as a source of film reviews through sites like Rotten Tomatoes, Ebert had a debate with Richard Corliss of Time Magazine and Film Comment, a magazine catering to the film cognoscenti, that echoes some of the complaints about Rotten Tomatoes. It boils down to seeing TV reviews as an assault on longer and deeper treatments that can be found in print publications. Today it is Internet reviewers rather than TV reviewers that are seen as the upstarts.

You can read the entire series that took place in three parts at Film Comment in 1990, with the current-day Richard Corliss reflecting on the debate in the documentary.

  1. https://www.filmcomment.com/article/richard-corliss-all-thumbs-or-is-there-a-future-for-film-criticism/
  2. https://www.filmcomment.com/article/roger-ebert-richard-corliss-cure-for-criticism-of-film-criticism/
  3. https://www.filmcomment.com/article/richard-corliss-roger-ebert-cure-for-criticism-of-film-criticism/

Corliss’s initial article was an attack on how TV film reviewers mostly offered their audience 2 minutes or so of shallow observations, accompanied with some shtick like the kind that made Gene Shalit famous. He was noted for a mustache even more grotesque than the one Kenneth Branagh wore playing Hercule Poirot in the forgettable remake of “Murder on the Orient Express”. He also took exception to the use of stars that always remind me of a grade you get on a term paper. Even worse, is the thumbs up/thumbs down rating that Siskel and Ebert used. It paved the way for Rotten Tomatoes “fresh” versus “rotten” categories that appall me even more than the idea of giving prizes to films as if they were entries in the Westminster Dog Show.

Corliss opened his article, which was a defense of the time-honored serious journalism of people like James Agee, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, with these words:

Will anyone read this story? (It has too many words and not enough pictures.) Does anyone read this magazine? (Every article in it wants to be a meal, not a McNugget.) Is anyone reading film criticism? (It lacks the punch, the clips, the thumbs.) Can anyone still read? (These days, it’s more fun and less work just to watch.)

Corliss makes many important and useful points but when he wrote “On Siskel & Ebert & The Movies, the critics play Roman emperors and award a thumbs-down condemnation or a thumbs-up reprieve”, he got Ebert’s dander up.

Ebert’s defense of his own approach to TV reviewing and his credentials as a serious film critic is part of his rich legacy. He wrote:

I submit to Richard Corliss that he missed the real source of distemper in today’s American film market, and that is the ascendency of the marketing campaign, and the use of stars as bait to orchestrate such campaigns. Reviewers, after all, can only offer their opinions on a new movie. Some like it, some don’t; together they do not have the impact of a well-coordinated national campaign that lands a popular star simultaneously on the covers of a People-type magazine, a newsweekly, several glossy monthlies, and the talkshows. Hollywood has never been more star-driven than it is at this moment, and publishers and producers have never been more eager to get their piece of the star of the week.

Ebert hit the nail on the head. Hollywood is all about marketing today. The junk that shows up in Cineplexes follows a marketing plan put together by accountants and investors. That is why we end up with garbage like Keanu Reeves in a travesty like “47 Ronin” that dishonored this Japanese art film classic like a mustache as ugly as Gene Shalit’s painted on the Mona Lisa.

As it happens, largely as a result of digital technology, good and even great cinema is flourishing today. N.Y. has as many art houses as it did 40 years ago, maybe even more. That’s where most of the films I review show up. The cost of making such films has dropped dramatically as digital cameras and software like Final Cut Pro make films much less expensive to produce even though it might take $100,000 to get one off the ground. Not only that, you have conscientious film distribution companies like Magnolia, Bullfrog, IFC as well as Netflix and HBO getting into the act. After a film has spent its moment of glory in a place like the Film Forum in NY, it has a good shot of being available as VOD at Amazon, iTunes or Netflix. In fact, I would argue that quality filmmaking is on the rise today even if capitalist civilization is sinking rapidly into a septic tank.

Rent “Life Itself” here.


March 2, 2018

Breaking Point

Filed under: Film,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 9:49 pm

Opening today at the Cinema Village in NY, “Breaking Point: The War for Democracy in Ukraine” makes an interesting contrast to “A Sniper’s War” that I reviewed on February 9th. Both films begin with an introduction to soldiers fighting on either side of lines in the Donetsk breakaway republic. In “A Sniper’s War”, it was a Serb volunteer and a self-described communist who joined up with separatists because he hated NATO, especially for the destruction it wrought in his native country. In “Breaking Point”, it is a children’s theater workshop director who tells us that it is “beauty, art and love” that will save the world. Those ideals convinced him to risk his life trying to recapture Donetsk just as the Serb’s devotion to communist ideals, no matter how compromised, convinced him to risk his.

Unlike “Winter on Fire”, the Netflix cinema vérité that is focused exclusively on Euromaidan, “Breaking Point” begins with the protests and takes us nearly to the state of affairs that prevails today, which leads one Ukrainian to ask toward the end of the film: “What did people die for?”

The documentary was co-directed and co-written by Mark Jonathan Harris, a 77-year old professor in the School of Cinematic Arts of the University of Southern California, and Oles Sanin, a multi-talented 45-year old Ukrainian who obviously was instrumental in getting the film to accurately represent historical events. Harris is no stranger to conflicted territory and beliefs. His 1997 “The Long Way Home” dealt with the experience of Jewish refugees after World War II but erred in serving up what amounted to Israeli propaganda according to Spike Lee. Apparently, Lee’s criticism had an impact since Harris followed up with “A Dream No More” that was intended to show Israel with warts and all. Commissioned by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the film was scuttled for obvious reasons after it was finished. An angry Harris complained that the Center wanted a “feel-good Diaspora jubilee film” and were unwilling to accept an honest accounting of Israel’s history.

Although my perspective on Ukraine differs from Harris and Sanin’s, I encourage my readers to see the film since it is a cohesive and largely reliable presentation of the last 5 years of Ukraine’s tortured history, including a war that has cost 10,000 lives and the displacement of more than a million of its citizens, mostly in the east for obvious reasons.

The film is best when it presents the views of ordinary citizens like the children’s theater director who said that he had little interest in politics but simply wanted to act in the interest of Ukraine’s national honor. Or a physician who volunteered his services both at Euromaidan and in Donetsk. He is a middle-aged, overweight man seen in the trailer above with little to offer in the way of analysis but critical for how he represents of the decent and ordinary Ukrainian citizenry who tend to get slandered in the left media as tools of the CIA.

The problem lies in the expert presentations, which include the former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk who offers platitudes about how democracy cannot be built in a day, etc. He claims that the “rule of law” is Ukraine’s salvation but does not go near the more urgent question of how the “rule of capital” will be Ukraine’s undoing, as the Serb sniper believed. We also hear from Anne Applebaum, the Washington Post pundit, and Yale professor Timothy Snyder who have impressive credentials as Ukraine experts even though their analysis of Ukraine’s problems tends to put all the blame for its woes on Putin.

In reality, Ukraine is impaled on the horns of a dilemma. Euromaidan was inspired by the hopes that Ukraine could become “normal” by joining the European Union. Ukrainians who worked in the Netherlands or Sweden must have been deeply envious of countries that could provide a decent standard of living and police departments that weren’t filled with thugs demanding bribes when they weren’t assaulting blameless citizens. What they didn’t count on was how the Netherlands and Sweden got there. It was by extracting super-profits from colonial peoples that helped create the conditions for the social democratic Eden that had been lusted after in Eastern Europe for generations.

Unlike Ukraine, countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have freely elected presidents that reject the EU and are adopting policies even more authoritarian than Putin, the man they consider their leader in the same way that Poroshenko looked to Obama. They had a taste of Washington Post type neoliberalism and spat it out. There is no Putinite waiting in the wings in Ukraine for obvious reasons.

Another failure of “Breaking Point” is its unwillingness to address the question of the country’s fascist elements. In an oblique way of addressing it, it includes a Jew who had trained to be a rabbi at one point in his life but became totally committed to the nationalist cause, so much now that he leads a battalion in Donetsk. When he asserts that there was no anti-Semitism in Maidan Square, he was certainly correct insofar as that was a reference to those who spoke from the platform. However, nobody can deny that some of the defense guards that protected the crowds from police attack did include anti-Semites, especially the neo-Nazis who would later on fight with the Azov Battalion in Donetsk. Ironically, the party its leader founded now opposes both EU and NATO, which, according to Putin’s apologists like Stephen F. Cohen, were supposedly the chief goal of the Ukrainian fascists.

This absence was most glaring when the film depicts the shoving match that took place in front of the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) when it signed a treaty that left Donetsk in Russian hands two years ago. The protesters were members of Right Sector and Svoboda, the two main ultra-right parties in Ukraine that needed to be identified by Harris and Sanin in the interests of transparency. After all, that is the main job of the documentary filmmaker—to tell it like it is.

February 27, 2018

Polluting Paradise

Filed under: Ecology,Film,Turkey — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm

Like fellow German filmmaker Werner Herzog, Fatih Akin, who was born to Turkish parents in Germany 44 years ago, is equally adept at making narrative and documentary films. Also, like Herzog, he has a deeply humanistic sensibility so sadly lacking in commercial films today. My introduction to his work was the 2005 “Crossing the Bridge”, a fantastic survey of Turkish music ranging from Arabesque to heavy metal available on Youtube and the most recent being “In the Fade”, a narrative film about neo-Nazis in Germany that was voted best foreign-language film of 2017 by NYFCO.

Thanks to the good people at Strand Releasing, a film distribution company dedicated to offbeat films, you can now see his 2012 documentary “Polluting Paradise” that is based on the struggle of the villagers of Çamburnu to remove a garbage landfill just a quarter-mile from the place that one, an elderly woman, described as a paradise.

Çamburnu sits on top of the hills overlooking the Black Sea in Trabzon Province of Turkey’s northeast. Most of the villagers appear to be small-scale tea producers and typical of the Turkish countryside: religiously observant and tradition-bound. For my urbane relatives in Istanbul,  life in Çamburnu  is as remote from theirs as it is from mine. Despite that, as soon as they discovered that a landfill was going to be foisted on them by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s bureaucrats, they demonstrated a willingness to struggle that you might have associated with small town residents of Vermont learning that a nuclear power plant was being built in their midst. Seeing mostly elderly women in scarves confronting the engineer supervising the construction project will remind you why Erdoğan’s authoritarian rule rests on shaky grounds.

If you’ve seen “Kedi”, the inspiring story of how Turks look after street cats in Istanbul, you’ll be motivated to watch “Polluting Paradise” (VOD/DVD information is here) as it allows ordinary people to make extraordinary statements about their way of life. Turks, whether illiterate or PhD’s, have a way of expressing themselves eloquently. In “Kedi”, they spoke from their heart about why caring street cats made them feel both human and closer to God. In “Polluting Paradise”, they talk about their love of village life that is under threat from capitalist development everywhere in the world. Throughout China, villages are being sacrificed to the needs of the country’s rapacious productive forces while Çamburnu was a sacrificial lamb to Turkey’s consumerism. When Trabzon’s governor was looking for a place to dump the province’s household trash, Çamburnu appeared an easy mark. However, the film demonstrates how rural folk can fight like tigers when their way of life is threatened.

In the press notes, Akin describes how the idea for “Polluting Paradise” originated:

In 2005 I was looking for a new idea for a film. I was working on The Edge of Heaven, but was still at the beginning. At the time I had just seen Martin Scorsese’s film about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home. I was so inspired by the phenomenon of Dylan that I then read his biography “Chronicles”. And that’s when I found out that Dylan’s grandmother had originally come from Trabzon. My paternal grandparents also originally came from Trabzon, but were forced to leave the place. My grandmother’s parents were against her marriage to my grandfather so the two eloped and settled down 1000 km away further west. I really wanted to see this place and so in 2005 I traveled with my father to Çamburnu. The beauty of this place blew me away. It was a hot and humid summer and everything was so lush and green. You could immediately see that Turkey is an Asian country, the place looked like some- where in Cambodia or Vietnam. I kept walking around saying: “This place is paradise!” But then the villagers said to me: “Not for much longer. They’re building a waste landfill here soon.” They showed me the site, which had once been an abandoned copper mine, and this immediately triggered my sense of justice. No, no landfill is going to be built here; let’s all try and prevent it together! People had protested long before I came there for the first time but this small village had no lobby. I then organized demonstrations and brought TV press to Çamburnu. And because I loved the nature and landscape so much, I integrated it into the ending of The Edge of Heaven. In the same year we began working on the documentary about the waste landfill.



February 23, 2018

The Young Karl Marx

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 5:47 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, February 23, 2018

Raoul Peck’s “The Young Karl Marx” opens on Friday, February 23 at the Metrograph in N.Y. and the Laemmle Royal in L.A., with a national release to follow. It is the story of how the youthful Marx and Engels became fast friends and worked together as a team to overcame the obstacles they faced in order to build the first communist organization in history based on a scientific analysis of the capitalist system. For millennia, the lower classes had always dreamed of overthrowing their oppressors and creating a new world based on freedom and equality but it was only in the 1840s that a theoretical basis for such a transformation was developed. At the risk of neglecting to add a spoiler alert, the film ends happily with Marx and Engels sitting down at a table to crank out the Communist Manifesto with Jenny Marx beaming down on them. That was a happy ending to the film even though capitalism lives on ghoulishly 170 years later. So, it is up to us to write our own happy ending today.

Much of the two hours of “The Young Karl Marx” entails events that will not be familiar to most people, including even someone like me who has been involved with Marxist politics since 1967. Adhering to the highest standards of historical accuracy, Peck and co-screenplay writer Pascal Bonitzer, who was the editor of Cahier du Cinema from 1969-1985 during its most rigorously Marxist phase, created an ensemble case that included characters such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Wilhelm Weitling, Arnold Ruge, Moses Hess, et al. Except for Proudhon, who perhaps some CounterPunch readers might recognize as a founding father of anarchism, these men are cloaked in obscurity today even though they were major political figures in the 1840s.

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February 14, 2018

Tehran Taboo; Mehrdad Oskouei retrospective

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 6:47 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, February 14, 2018

If you want to understand the social contradictions in Iran that lead to periodic explosions like those that took place recently, there is no better resource than Iranian film. Often risking repression, which at its most extreme cost the life of environmentalist Kavous Seyed Emami, filmmakers put a spotlight on the grievances of large parts of the population, especially women and those who have not benefited from the wealth-producing oil rentier state.

New Yorkers have an unparalleled opportunity to see Iranian film at its best this month from two unheralded directors. On February 14th, the Film Forum will be showing “Tehran Taboo”, a noirish animated feature by Ali Soozandeh who lives and works in Germany after leaving Iran in 1995 at the age of 25. I have no doubt that “Tehran Taboo” will get my nomination as both best foreign-language and animated film for 2018. It is the story of three women dealing with different aspects of a suffocating patriarchy and one young man trying to live the life of a free artist in an unfree society. On February 23rd, the Anthology Film Archives will be showing a retrospective of Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentaries that address Iran’s deep-seated gender and class injustices. While Iranian film is best known in the West for the narrative works of Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Asghar Farhadi, Oskouei deserves pride of place alongside such masters. His work has appeared at over 400 film festivals in over 50 countries and earning him over 90 awards, so it is high time for a retrospective here and now.

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February 9, 2018

A Sniper’s War

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 5:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, February 9, 2018

“A Sniper’s War” just premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and will next be seen at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana on February 23rd. Although I doubt that many of my readers will be in Missoula for the festival—or for any other purpose—I still want to call attention to a film that should eventually and hopefully make it into theatrical distribution before too long. This is a first-time work by a young filmmaker that shows remarkable courage, talent and perseverance in painting a portrait of a Serb volunteer who came to the Donetsk People’s Republic to defend his socialist beliefs. Whether or not those beliefs were grounded in reality is not really a question the film sought to answer. Director Olya Schechter simply wanted to tell the story of a man nicknamed Deki who was poised on the razor’s edge between duty to a higher cause and murder.

Early on in her powerful documentary, we see Deki showing photographs on his smart phone of the devastation wrought by NATO in Belgrade. There are bombed out buildings that by any definition were the result of war crimes. Behind him on the wall is a banner from the former Soviet Union of a hammer and sickle poised above a red star. Later on, we hear him and fellow separatist fighters mourning over the loss of Communism that they blame on NATO and Western imperialism. Deki is nostalgic for a system that provided free health care and education in Yugoslavia, as the militia members nod in agreement. The men are not ultra-nationalist special forces “volunteers” hoping to reabsorb the whole of Ukraine into a new Russian empire. Instead, they are the salt of the earth of Eastern Ukraine: middle-aged schoolteachers and coal miners.

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February 2, 2018

The best films of 2017

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

My sentimental favorite

To repeat what I said in last year’s selection of the best films available as VOD (video on demand), Amazon continues to provide access to those that show up originally in obscure art house venues in the largest cities and nowhere else. The rental fee ranges between $3.99 to $6.99 and is worth every penny.

Despite the decline of such theaters as I pointed out in a recent CounterPunch article, the on-line availability of leading-edge independent, foreign-language, and documentary films is greater than ever. In the 1950s and 60s, arguably the golden age of film, your only opportunity to see something like Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” was to live in a city where it was playing. And even if you did, it might have been impossible for you to fit it into your schedule. That’s the demand for which a revival house like The New Yorker or Bleecker St. Cinema began to meet decades ago.

In 1985, the video shop revolution began with the opening of the first Blockbuster. Now, for the first time, you could go rent a VHS for “Yojimbo”, even though it was more likely that you’d rent it from the video store equivalent of The New Yorker, which in the Big Apple was a place called Kim’s Video and Music that shut down in 2014, a victim of Amazon just like the massive record shops Tower and J&R. Who knows? Maybe in ten years every capitalist commodity can only be ordered from Amazon. At that point, we should arm the workers, seize power, nationalize it once and for all, and exile Jeff Bezos to that space station colony he is obsessed with.

With the steady improvement of bandwidth and the convenience of devices such as the Roku box, it has reached the point where many of these envelope-pushing films can be rented not long after they premiere in an art house. In fact, most of the films I review were seen on Vimeo, a streaming site that is essential for the film industry’s publicity departments.

This year’s selection of ten narrative and ten documentaries was drawn from an especially rich pool. While Hollywood continues to decline, such films trend upwards—a function no doubt of living in a time when the social and economic crisis creates an enormous magnetic pull on filmmakers with a conscience. No matter how bleak things seem, let’s support such films since it is better than cursing the darkness.

The list below contains a link to and excerpt from my reviews.

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