Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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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April 7, 2017

The Promise

Filed under: Armenians,Film — louisproyect @ 2:00 pm

Armenia’s Trail of Tears

On April 21st, “The Promise” will be opening in New York and then scheduled for nationwide release in 1,500 theaters. It has much in common both politically and artistically with “Bitter Harvest” that I reviewed for CounterPunch on February 24th. That film dealt with Stalin’s brutal imposition of forced collectivization that had the unintended consequence of leaving millions of Ukrainians starving to death. “The Promise” is about how the Young Turks expelled the Armenian population from the desiccated husk of the Ottoman Empire as it began to take shape as modern Turkey during WWI.

As I said in my review of “Bitter Harvest”, neither of these historical events could be compared to the Judeocide since Hitler’s death camps were meant to exterminate a race on an industrialized, assembly-line basis. Although there were mass killings in both Ukraine and eastern Anatolia, most of the deaths were the result of putting a population under such duress that sickness and death were inevitable. I have always thought of the Armenian expulsion as Turkey’s version of Andrew Jackson’s “Trail of Tears”. Did Jackson intend for one-out-of-three Cherokees to perish on their long trek to Oklahoma? If the removal of Indians and Armenians were critical to the formation of a modern state based on “enlightenment values” (the Young Turks strongly identified with the French Revolution), wasn’t there a productivist logic to ethnic cleansing? I reject this kind of argument but at least want to establish that there are both American and Turkish historians who would take great umbrage at the idea of a genocide taking place in their nation.

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March 31, 2017

Pop Cinema: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:13 pm


Each year I review over 100 films with most of them being the kind that show up in art houses: leftist documentaries, foreign-language films, American indies and the like. In November, I start catching up with the films that major Hollywood studios are pushing for NYFCO awards such as “Moonlight”, “Brooklyn”, “Spotlight” and other high-minded products that are geared to college-educated, NY Times reading, PBS subscribers. It is what you might call the Merchant-Ivory trade.

But what I really love and rarely write about are the horror and action films that dominate the multiplexes, mainly because they are so crappy. For example, I can’t get enough of “Alien” type films where a plucky band of space travelers must fend off some deadly creature that is killing them off one by one. One such film titled “Life” opened this week and could only muster a 66 percent fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. Generally, anything under 98 percent is usually enough to make me walk out on looking like the subject of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, so there was no point in spending $12 on a geezer ticket for a movie that the generally reliable Slant Magazine characterized: “If you ever find yourself in outer space and the only person talking any sense is Ryan Reynolds, locate the nearest escape hatch.”

Through pure serendipity, I saw five films recently that except for one might be of interest to CounterPunch readers. The four that made the cut are apolitical except for the one at the top of the list, but can at least function as escapist fare for that segment of the population that is burdened by angst over the President from Hell. If you’ve spent all week long passing out leaflets in the bitter cold (do activists do that nowadays?), you might as well treat yourself to a film in which the monsters are purely celluloid.

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Trailers for films under review:

March 14, 2017

Tickling Giants

Filed under: Egypt,Film — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

In March 2011, a heart surgeon named Bassem Youssef living in Cairo was inspired to produce Youtube videos in which he provided satirical commentary on the Mubarak dictatorship that rapidly grew viral, so much so that he landed a weekly TV show titled “The Show” that enjoyed the same kind of popularity. He had an audience of 30 million people, while Jon Stewart’s show, which Youssef openly credits as his inspiration, never reached more than 2 million.

His meteoric rise and his demise under General al-Sisi’s dictatorship are documented in a film titled “Tickling Giants” that opens today at the IFC in NY and a number of other cities a week later (check http://ticklinggiants.com/ for venues.) It is directed by Sara Taksler, a senior producer for “The Jon Stewart Show” who decided to make a documentary about Youssef after he made a guest appearance there in June 2012.

When you see excerpts from Youssef’s show, the influence of Jon Stewart is unmistakable. From the body language of the host, his grimaces, to the mocking of the high and mighty, you are reminded that comedy is universal.

As amusing as the film is, it has a deadly serious mission, which is to demonstrate how the hopes of Tahrir Square were dashed by both the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi and the military coup that toppled it.

Youssef reached 30 million viewers because his show articulated the yearnings of the Egyptian people for freedom of expression, an end to military or clerical authoritarianism and the sort of crony capitalism that pervades the entire region. Despite his obviously secular identity, Youssef was beloved by observant Muslims of the lower classes who felt victimized by the nation’s one-percent.

Like most Egyptians, Youssef and his staff were jubilant over Mubarak’s resignation but felt short-changed by the election of Morsi, whose attempts at consolidating an Islamic state in the style of Erdogan’s AKP were a clear violation of the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring. When Youssef began mocking Morsi, who is a tempting target, there was widespread support.

The election of Generaal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was greeted in the same gloves off spirit. It made no difference to Youssef who was the head of state. If the regime continued to operate in the same fashion as Mubarak but with cosmetic changes, he would go for the jugular. What he didn’t anticipate was the degree to which a fanatical reactionary base could be assembled to agitate against his show and the partnership it formed with the media establishment in Egypt that viewed him as a threat to the el-Sisi regime. The ruling class had decided to clamp down on civil liberties and Bassem Youssef was unacceptable for his alleged insults to the army and to the Egyptian nation.

While watching this extremely compelling documentary, I could not help but think of President Trump who is drawing from the same bag of tricks as al-Sisi but with a lot less license to kill. Two hundred and thirty years of bourgeois democracy creates institutions that are much more deeply rooted than what exists in Egypt.

In November 2016, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was the first head of state in the Arab world to congratulate Trump on his electoral victory to the dismay of those Egyptians who used to be loyal fans of Bassem Youssef’s “The Show”. For Trump, al-Sisi was a “fantastic guy” whose coup against the Muslim Brotherhood was praiseworthy: “He took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it.”

According to Juan Cole, the dictator al-Sisi got on the phone with Bashar al-Assad after his meeting with Trump to gloat over the green light he got from the White House to crush “the terrorists”. With Trump cementing ties to Netanyahu, al-Sisi and Assad, it continues to amaze me that anybody on the left can continue to maintain illusions about him being an alternative to Hillary Clinton.

With Assad firmly in control of much of Syria today, it is easy to give in to a sense of futility. In the press notes, Youssef is asked to comment about the feeling Egyptians might have about the Arab Spring being a failure. His response is one that should be considered by those succumbing to the same sort of feelings:

Nothing is stagnant. We live in a very dynamic world and things change all the time. Four years ago, we never thought that we, in Egypt, would get rid of a dictator and start this kind of a political and cultural revolution, but it suddenly happened. And who could have imagined me, a doctor, of all people, becoming this media star? Unimaginable. You never know what will happen. We are living now in a much faster era. In the Middle East, we have a huge younger generation that is more connected. Oppressive governments can’t control the internet like they could with television networks and newspapers. They can’t rule people with the same methods that were employed on their parents in 1950s and ‘60s – outdated, obsolete kind of propaganda that people will not buy into it for the rest of their lives.

I am optimistic. I don’t think the revolution is dead. It’s just sleeping for now. When will people wake up again? I don’t know. Maybe in my lifetime. Maybe my daughter will carry on “The Show, Part Two.” She is very feisty and she’s much funnier than me and she’s only three years old. So she has a lot of time to practice.


March 10, 2017

Socially Relevant Film Festival 2017

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 2:20 pm

Monday, March 13th is opening night for the Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York, an annual event I have been covering since 2014. Featuring both narrative and documentary films, it is the quintessential alternative to the sort of escapism embodied in Hollywood blockbuster films and especially relevant in the current period, when the president of the United States is mounting an assault on the humane and progressive values expressed in the festival’s offerings. As you will see, the three films I have had a chance to preview amount to a rebuttal of the racist, xenophobic, corporatist and warmongering Trump administration.

American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs

This is a documentary about Eugene V. Debs made by Yale Strom, whose earlier work I first came across fourteen years ago. This was a witty and wise film titled “L’Chayim, Comrade Stalin” that told the story of Birobidzhan, the Jewish autonomist republic of the USSR.

Like that film, “American Socialist” is a vastly entertaining and politically insightful look at what might appear to be another somewhat Utopian experiment, namely the overthrow of American capitalism under the leadership of the most charismatic socialist politician in American history whose name and reputation cropped up in the 2016 primaries during his admirer Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Indeed, Sanders directed his own much more modest 28-minute Debs documentary in 1979 that was made before he became a Democrat. While nobody could doubt that Sanders was preferable to Clinton or Trump, Debs was very clear about the two capitalist parties in a 1904 campaign speech: “The Republican and Democratic parties, or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party, represent the capitalist class in the class struggle. They are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles.”

Although I am familiar with Debs’s speeches, I knew very little about his life and career, which “American Socialist” provides in detail. We learn that his parents were a major influence on him politically. His father used to read French social protest novels to him as a youngster. The young Debs was especially fond of “Les Miserables”.

As is the case with most people who become socialists, Debs did not spring out of his mother’s womb with fully developed ideas about class conflict. Indeed, as a young man with a sympathy for the working class, he still mistakenly took the side of the railroad bosses in the epochal strike of 1877 when he was 22 years old.

Becoming more familiar with the one-sided war on labor as he grew older, especially by the railroad bosses, Debs became a co-founder of the American Railway Union in 1893, one of the first industrial unions in the USA. A year later, the union led a strike against Pullman, the sleeping car manufacturer whose workers lived in Pullman, Illinois—a hyper-exploitative company town founded by someone shameless enough to name it after himself. When George Pullman decided to maintain the price of rent after he had lowered the wages of 4,000 workers, they went out on strike. The strike took on political dimensions as the government falsely claimed that it impeded the delivery of mail and had to be crushed. In a way, it was the airline controllers strike of its day but on a much higher level. 80 workers were killed in confrontations with the police and army.

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.

Debs had an affinity for ordinary workers, who listened spellbound to his speeches even when they didn’t understand many of the words. We see a photo of Debs leaning forward characteristically from a platform speaking to adoring Polish factory workers with only a smattering of English.

My own grandfather, who I was named after, was chairman of the Socialist Party in my home town as well as head of the Workman’s Circle, a leftist benevolent society for Jewish workers. At the time, socialism was a massively popular movement as indicated by the six percent vote Debs received in the 1912 election.

While the exact social and economic conditions that led to the popularity of the Socialist Party cannot be repeated in an epoch of financialization and runaway shops, the sense of unfairness that led to such a massive Debs vote exists today. If Debs was up on a cloud in socialist heaven, I am sure he would be gladdened by the sight of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matters, whose activists are seen marching down the streets in Strom’s film. History does not repeat itself but we are certainly moving toward a showdown with the beast that Debs spoke against in a 1900 speech after the fashion of a biblical prophet:

The working class must get rid of the whole brood of masters and exploiters, and put themselves in possession and control of the means of production, that they may have steady employment without consulting a capitalist employer, large or small, and that they may get the wealth their labor produces, all of it, and enjoy with their families the fruits of their industry in comfortable and happy homes, abundant and wholesome food, proper clothing and all other things necessary to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ It is therefore a question not of “reform,’ the mask of fraud, but of revolution. The capitalist system must be overthrown, class-rule abolished and wage-slavery supplanted by the coöperative industry.


If Eugene V. Debs is the model for the kind of political movement against Trumpism we need today, this documentary about a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon is the perfect squelch of his racist attacks on immigrants fleeing state terrorism in Syria and elsewhere.

This film deserves the widest distribution and I hope that its screening at SR 2017 will help catapult it into other venues like nation-wide theatrical distribution. Director Lucas Jedrzejak, a man of Polish descent now living in Great Britain, puts a spotlight on the valiant efforts of Lebanese businessman and landowner Ali Tafesh who created a refugee camp in Ketermaya that was home to more Syrian refugees in 2015 than the entire USA—and that was when a Nobel Peace Prize winner was in the White House not a screaming Islamophobe.

Jedrzejak’s film focuses on the camp’s children, many of whom are orphans. Despite the hardships of living in Spartan conditions, the occupants of what can be described as huts are intent on living as much of a normal life as possible. Wise beyond their years, the childrens’ life revolves around playing in a makeshift playground and going to a one-room schoolhouse. One of the teachers is a star in the film, a 13-year old hijab-wearing girl named Nijmeh who should go on speaking tour of the USA about Syrian refugee realities. She is deeply aware of her responsibility to teach the ABC’s to children half her age as well as to keep their morale up. We see her leading a group of them in what looks a bit like ring-around-the-rosie that they delight in. When we learn that most of them have been exposed to aerial bombardment from Assad and his Russian gangster confederates, we can understand that they are glad to be alive even if they lack videogames and large-screen TVs.

For most of them, the deepest hope is to return to Syria—not to go to Europe or the USA. They are mature enough to understand that this is impossible under Bashar al-Assad who has destroyed their lives and those of millions of their countrymen. They long for normalcy, a chance to be among fellow Syrians in their homeland where they can play, go to school and enjoy family celebrations. It is one of the great crimes of the 21st century that their lives have been turned upside down in a war on ordinary people fraudulently called a war on terrorism.

Lucas Jedrzejak’s film is both inspiring and politically necessary in a time of growing demonization of Muslim peoples. If the USA is not quite ready to accept a fascist dictatorship, you can certainly say that people like Steve Bannon have found a scapegoat to put at the would-be fascist’s disposal. Like the Jews of the 1930s, the people of Ketermaya are desperately in need of solidarity. “Ketermaya” is an important statement on their behalf as well as millions of others fleeing persecution.

The Toxic Circle

Watch trailer here

Just over a year ago, I offered an analysis of Donald Trump that differed from many on the left who compared him to Hitler or Mussolini. I thought that the more apt comparison was with Silvio Berlusconi, the demagogic authoritarian but democratically elected Prime Minister of Italy during whose 12 years of rule the laws were bent in favor of the rich. Everything took place through “free elections” even though the Italian one-percent could rely on the mafia, the cops, the courts and the elected officials of Berlusconi’s Forza Italian party to circumvent the law.

This is what happened in Campania, a region in Southwest Italy, just above the boot. Directed by Wilfried Koomen, who is based in the Netherlands, “The Toxic Circle” is an examination of toxic dumping in the countryside of Campania that has become the Naples mafia’s biggest cash cow, even more than the drug trade. Known as the Camorra, the gangsters run trucking companies that dump chemical waste generated in Italy and the rest of Europe into the waters, roadside, hills and fields of Campania. To escape detection, large trucks offload the waste into smaller panel trucks that burn their contents after dark to escape detection.

When LBJ was president, his wife Lady Bird went on a campaign to persuade Americans to avoid throwing their garbage out of car windows when traveling on the highways as part of a beautification campaign. As ugly as the sight of garbage strewn alongside Campania’s highways is, the real damage is medical not esthetic. The toxic dumping of heavy metals and other carcinogens has led to a cancer epidemic in the countryside that is dramatized by the story of one woman in the film whose baby developed leukemia a couple of months after his birth and who died just before his second birthday. When visiting him in the children’s ward, she was shocked to discover that several other women who lived nearby were visiting for the same reason. Considering the extreme rarity of the illness, this epidemic had to be investigated.

When the mothers made their case to the government, the Minister of Health who belonged to Berlusconi’s party, denied any connection between toxic dumping and the illnesses their children and other Campania residents were suffering and blamed them for indulging in unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking. The mother bitterly comments that her son had never smoked a single cigarette in his entire life.

In early February, Congress repealed the Stream Protection Act that restricts coal companies from dumping mining waste into streams and waterways. One imagines that many miners or ex-miners considering West Virginia and Kentucky’s depressed state voted for Trump because he promised to make coal great again. You can be assured that jobs in the labor-intensive pit mines will not be restored. Instead, mountaintop removal will continue unabated and that the coal companies will be at liberty to dump the toxic waste into local waters, thus ratcheting up the cancer rate. This might not be fascism, but it is certainly class dictatorship under the façade of democracy.

This film and every other film on the Socially Relevant Film Festival schedule will help arm us politically for the struggles we will surely carry out over the next four years, and for that matter over the decades to come as American big business continues to treat us as its subjects rather than as citizens in a democracy. As I have stated on many occasions, filmmakers such as those whose work can be seen at this film festival are a key part of the emerging vanguard of the coming American revolution. Don’t miss a chance to see them in action.

March 9, 2017


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:29 pm

Opening today at the Museum of Modern Art for a one-week run is “Uncertain”, a documentary that derives its title from the hamlet (population 94) of the same name in Texas close to the border with Louisiana. The film begins with its characteristic dry humor pointing to signs posted for the “Uncertain Police Department”, etc. Uncertain’s chief of police notes that it has always been a magnet for people fleeing from the law in Louisiana. Just one step across state lines and you are home free.

There are three subjects in the film who typify its marginal existence, evoked by the name of the place they call home. One is a heavily tattooed, diabetic and alcoholic young man who feels trapped in Uncertain, especially with its lack of a single unmarried woman. Early on we see him at a Karaoke bar singing a Beatles song terribly off-key. The second is a former heroin addict and American Indian who has cleaned up his life and found himself in Uncertain. He spends almost every leisure hour trying to kill a giant boar that has staked out territory in the woods near Uncertain. The beast has become his Moby Dick. The third is a 74-year old African-American who loves to fish in the nearby lake that is suffering from an overgrowth of vegetation that will kill the fish and bring an end to the tourist trade, one of the few sources of income. He has spent years in prison as a young man for shooting someone in the face during a senseless squabble.

The contrast between MOMA, a flagship of the liberal bourgeoisie, and the film’s subjects could not be sharper. In less capable hands, the film could have smacked of Hillary Clinton’s attitudinizing about “deplorables” but co-directors Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands obviously have a real affection for the three men and allow their humanity to shine through. The American Indian visits the grave of a young African-American who he killed in an auto accident while DWI, while the old African-American reflects on the approach of death that will reunite him with his wife who is in heaven. He only hopes that he won’t end up in hell since admits being bad to the bone when young.

Since I grew up in a tiny village in the countryside (population 300 or so), I have an affinity for films like this. If you are in NYC, you might want to check “Uncertain” out at the MOMA. It will be available as VOD afterwards and worth looking for on iTunes and the other VOD sources. I would also recommend “Vernon, Florida”, an Errol Morris film that is a bit more patronizing and “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea” that has the same combination of small town eccentrics and a dying body of water.  It can be seen for a mere $2.99 and is tons of fun.


March 8, 2017

I Called Him Morgan

Filed under: Film,Jazz — louisproyect @ 5:43 pm

Opening in NYC on March 24th and in Los Angeles a week later, “I Called Him Morgan” is the greatest film about a jazz musician I have seen. Although it is a documentary, it puts to shame narrative films that have fallen flat such as Don Cheadle’s on Miles Davis. Even if you are not a jazz fan, this is a compelling and informative work that might even motivate you to buy Lee Morgan CD’s. The film benefits from an almost nonstop score made up of his performances that are a reminder of how much of a loss his death at 33 years was. Combined with some amazing still photos of Lee Morgan and his contemporaries, this is a feast for both the ears and the eyes.

Not only is this a chronicle of one of the great trumpet players of the 50s to the early 70s, it is also a love story about Morgan and Helen, the woman who loved him. On February 19, 1972, when Morgan was playing at Slug’s on the lower east side, a club I used to haunt in the mid-60s when I was living in NYC, Helen Morgan came there to confront her husband. He had been spending far too much time with a younger woman who was in the club that night. In an altercation involving the three, Helen was evicted from the premises into the snowy night. She stormed back into the club and fired two bullets into her husband’s chest. The blizzard, which had left more than a foot of snow at that point, kept an ambulance from arriving for more than a hour. He died in the hospital. I could not help but think of the pop tune written in 1912:

Johnny saw Frankie a-comin’, Out the back door he did scoot
But Frankie took aim with her pistol, And the gun went roota-toot-toot
He was her man but he done her wrong

In an introduction to his new class in an adult education program in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1996, Larry Reni Thomas began by referring to his past gig as a jazz DJ. Later on one of the students, an elderly woman who he considered very street-smart but without a formal education, mentioned to him that her husband had been a jazz musician. When Thomas found out that it was Lee Morgan, he invited her to sit down for an interview. The audio tape of that interview forms an important strand in the narrative of “I Called Him Morgan”, including the film’s title. Helen Morgan didn’t care for the name Lee, preferring to call him Morgan.

Lee Morgan was a leading member of what has been referred to as “hard bop” movement that emerged in the mid-50s. Trumpet players like Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard were strongly influenced by Clifford Brown who died tragically in an auto accident on his way to a gig on June 25, 1956 at the age of 25. Born in 1938, Morgan was Clifford Brown’s student in Philadelphia and an acknowledged prodigy who joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band at the age of 18.

After Dizzy’s band folded, he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1958, a group that was considered the foremost exponent of the hard bop style. That year they recorded “Moanin’”, a tune that is considered one of the great jazz anthems of all time. It epitomized the synthesis of bebop chord changes and traditional “soul” music in the Black community found in the blues, gospel music and r&b. Listen to it here to get an idea of what jazz sounded like in its glory days:

You can see the band performing this number in “I Called Him Morgan” as well as many other classic performances on the Steve Allen Show and other vintage television shows before TV became corrupted with formulaic pop music.

Side by side, as we learn about Morgan’s musical evolution, we get Helen Morgan’s story, an all too familiar tale of racial and gender oppression in the Deep South. She had her first child at the age of 13 and another a year later. In her late teens, she married a man who would die a couple of years into their marriage. Soon afterwards she moved to NYC where she was welcomed by her late husband’s relatives and into a hip, urban environment. As she tells Larry Reni Thomas early on, she hated the country and doing chores on her father’s farm.

In no time at all, she became celebrated by jazz musicians for her quick wit, feistiness, sex appeal and opening her apartment up to the community as a kind of salon where they could always count on a fabulous meal and each other’s company. To pay the rent and other expenses, Helen Morgan worked for an answering service by day, a job more easily available to Black women.

One day, she ran into Lee Morgan at one of her get-togethers and figured out immediately that he was strung out on heroin. Since it was a cold winter’s day, she asked him where his coat was. His answer: the pawn shop. She took his arm in hers and went to the pawn shop to get his coat out of hock. This was the beginning of a May-November romance (she was 13 years older) that gave her great happiness and him a second chance on a career after she nursed him back to health and kept him on the straight and narrow. The tragic ending to this marriage was not inevitable but as is so often the case, murders are the result of domestic quarrels that get out of hand. With the easy availability of handguns (Lee had bought one for her Helen for her own protection), it is no wonder that such killings take place routinely—but usually it is the woman who dies.

Among the breakthroughs in this film made by Swedish director Kasper Collin, whose last documentary was on Albert Ayler, is the assembling of interviewees who had played alongside Lee Morgan, including Wayne Shorter, “Tootie” Heath, Larry Ridley, Charlie Persip and others. Now mostly in their 70s, they are knowledgeable about Lee Morgan as a person and a musician. Shorter comes across as true savant of this world and a musician whose biography (much more of an “as-told-to” memoir) is going on my must-read list for 2017.

I urge you to put this film on your must-see list for 2017. “I Called Him Morgan” opens on Friday, March 24 at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center andt will be followed on Friday, March 31 at NYC’s Metrograph Theater and the Laemmle Monica in Los Angeles with a national expansion to follow.

March 7, 2017


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:08 pm

“Tanna”, a joint Australia-Vanuatu production, is being released as VOD today. (Amazon, iTunes, and Youtube).

Nominated by Australia for a foreign-language Oscar, the film features members of the Yakel tribe on the island of Tanna who live according to customs that probably go back 3,300 years when the island chain of Vanuatu was settled by distant relatives of the Australian aborigines. The Yakel will remind you of the Yanomami, especially with the naked tribesmen’s only clothing a “penis sheath”. In a hilarious scene early in the film, a young boy is mortified to discover that a girl named Selin has run off with his sheath while he was swimming as a prank.

Being bare-assed passes muster in a world where people live close to nature in what Marshall Sahlins once called stone age affluence. You labored to produce the bare necessities and then spent the rest of your time in leisure, including swimming in the Edenic-like waters of Tanna.

But it is not quite a paradise. The Yakel are in a low-intensity war with the Imedin who live only a few miles from their village. When a shaman takes Selin on a walk through the forest to teach her about taboos that must be respected, a couple of Imedin warriors spy them from afar. One says to the other that the shaman has cast a spell on their kava garden and must be killed.

That is what happens. When the shaman and Selin are on another walkabout, this time on the precipice of Mount Yasur, a very active volcano on Tanna, he is mortally clubbed by Imedin warriors. After his death several days later, as the Yakel men prepare themselves for a raid on the Imedin village, an elder advises them that the time for killing is over. The two tribes must make peace with each other since their numbers are dwindling. As defenders of a culture going back for millennia, they must preserve their way of life rather than destroying each other in senseless warfare.

A peace gathering between the Yakel and the Imedin starts off well. They exchange gifts such as pigs and kava. But one item is not so easily exchanged. The village elder offers the young and beautiful Wawa as a bride to an Imedin man in an arranged marriage but she loves Dain, a Yakel man. The two run off together in the hopes of living on their own in the forest.

I have seen close to a dozen narrative films featuring hunting and gathering societies over the years but none comes close to “Tanna” in terms of story-telling expertise, acting by non-professionals, cinematography, music and political insight.

In a brilliant scene, Dain and Wawa visit a Christian village to see if they can find sanctuary there. The first thing they hear from a couple of “saved” Vanuatans is that they must dress as proper Christians. Wawa’s grass skirt must go, and Dain’s penis shaft must go particularly. They spend a few minutes watching the converts singing hymns and blathering about God and then decide to move on. Walking away with Dain, Wawa tells him, “Those people really freak me out”. The best line in a film since “I don’t have to show you no stinkin’ badge”.


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