Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 22, 2019

Tigerland

Filed under: animal rights,Film — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

As the title suggests, “Tigerland” is a documentary about the efforts in both Far Eastern Russia and Bengal, India to prevent tigers from going extinct. It opens today at the Monica Center in Los Angeles and at the Cinema Village in N.Y. next Friday. It will also be available as VOD on the Discovery cable network tomorrow. As a genre, it resembles what you would see on channels like Discovery, Smithsonian and National Geographic. However you decide to see this beautiful but worrisome film, it is worth your time because it gets to the heart of the species extinction that confronts humanity today. As a symbol of wilderness, probably nothing can top the tiger, a creature that inspired William Blake to write:

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

At the start of the 20th century, there were 100,000 tigers living across Asia. Today there are less than 4,000. The same socio-economic forces that are acting to exterminate them are arrayed against us. The loss of forests across Asia not only threatens tigers but us as well since forests absorb greenhouse gases. With people like Modi, Putin, Trump and Jinping in control of natural resources, including tigers, our days are numbered.

When the film starts, you do a double-take since it shows a tiger walking through deep snow. After a minute or so, you learn that this is a Siberian Tiger—one of the few of the species living outside of India and Southeast Asia. Pavel Fomenko operates a tiger preserve in the Bikin National Park funded by the World Wildlife Fund.

In the years following the collapse of Communism, poaching became a major problem in Russia. Since there is a market for tiger organs as sexual potency aids in China, just as there is for rhino horns, tiger numbers fell precipitously. The film does not identify Putin as helping to reverse this trend but if he was, that’s one good deed in his sorry life.

Much of the film is devoted to Fomenko’s team trying to track down two tiger cubs who were separated from their mother. She was taken into the tiger preserve after attacking and eating a couple of dogs in a Bikin village. They finally succeeded in reuniting the family but nearly at the cost of Fomenko losing his life. When tending to the cubs, the mother smashed through a fence and mauled him badly. Fomenko said: “The tigress is not to blame. This is typical behavior of a predator defending its offspring.” If there is any hope for Russia, a country even more warped by consumerist appetites than the USA, it is that there are people like Pavel Fomenko living there.

The Bengal segment of the film features conservationists Amit Sankhala and Jai Bhati, the grandson and great-grandson of the original “Tiger Man of India,” Kailash Sankhala. Kailash Sankhala was motivated to campaign for the protection of tigers when he became Director of the Delhi Zoological Park in 1965. Appalled by the willingness of the government to promote hunting safaris that were drastically reducing the number of tigers, he took on the political elite that was fixated on “development”. This meant turning the habitat of tigers into plantations or mining sites, while coveting the foreign currency pouring in through big game hunting expeditions. Fortunately, he found a sympathetic ear in Indira Gandhi who pushed through legislation banning the killing of tigers.

It should be mentioned that the Indian gentry was just as bad. It was as addicted to killing tigers as Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway were to killing animals at the top of the food chain. One of the more disgusting historical footage seen in the film is an Indian hunting expedition that culminates in the killing of a tiger. As the creature lies dying on the ground, it is shot several more times at close range and topped off by the elephant ridden by some Mughal wannabe stomping on the head of the dead tiger. Seeing this, I was reminded of Bruce Cockburn’s “If I had a Rocket Launcher”:

I don’t believe in guarded borders and I don’t believe in hate
I don’t believe in generals or their stinking torture states
And when I talk with the survivors of things too sickening to relate
If I had a rocket launcher, if I had a rocket launcher
If I had a rocket launcher, I would retaliate

The film was directed by Ross Kauffman, who won an Academy Award for “Born into Brothels” and produced by another Academy Awardee Fisher Stevens, who helped make “The Cove” possible. “The Cove” was a powerful documentary that helped to put a stop to killing whales for Japanese grocery stores. Let’s hope that “Tigerland” will help shore up the resistance to killing tigers.

 

March 15, 2019

Ben is Back; Beautiful Boy

Filed under: Counterpunch,drugs,Film — louisproyect @ 12:51 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 15, 2019

Given the enormity of the drug crisis in the USA, particularly centered on opioid overdoses that are the largest cause of death of people under the age of 50, it was inevitable that Hollywood would begin to produce “problem” movies such as “Ben is Back” and “Beautiful Boy”. It also just as inevitable that such films would be based on the suffering of well-to-do families and suffused with clichés.

“Ben is Back” stars Julia Roberts as Holly Burns, the matriarch of a generally happy family eagerly awaiting Christmas day, the happiest time of the year, especially if you live in the suburbs and have lots of money to lavish on presents. Pulling into her driveway with a carload of gifts to place under the Christmas tree, she sees the ghost of Christmas past, namely her college-aged son Ben (Lucas Hedges) who has cut short his stay in a drug rehabilitation facility to return home from the holidays.

The entire family treats Ben as if he was the scariest ghost showing up in Scrooge’s bedroom. He is there not to remind them of their lifetime of sins but the pain he has visited on them in the past as an opioid addict. Hoping to enjoy a happy time with the family, he is put on the defensive by his mom’s insistence that he take a drug test in the upstairs bathroom right off the bat. As he pees into a bottle, she stands behind him with her arms folded to make sure he is not turning in a fake sample.

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March 8, 2019

Socially Relevant Film Festival 2019

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 8, 2019

Beginning next Friday on March 15th and lasting until March 21st, the SR Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York will be offering a welcome respite from the violent, comic-book, escapist, and misogynist films appearing in your local cineplex. I have been covering the festival each year since it began in 2015 and am happy to report that this year’s offerings remain at the high level founder Nora Armani has maintained over the past four years.

SR’s mission statement states that it “focuses on socially relevant film content, and human interest stories that raise awareness to social problems and offer positive solutions through the powerful medium of cinema. SR believes that through raised awareness, expanded knowledge about diverse cultures, and the human condition as a whole, it is possible to create a better world free of violence, hate, and crime.”

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March 7, 2019

3 Faces

Filed under: Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 11:17 pm

For those who appreciate the kinds of films that get recommended here, there is very good news. Jafar Panahi’s “3 Faces” opens tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York. I consider Panahi to be the greatest living filmmaker and this his greatest film. He is not only a master filmmaker, he is also the main voice of the Iranian democratic movement working in the arts. For his outspoken defense of the Green Movement and the democratic rights in general of Iranians, he was arrested for making propaganda against the Islamic Republic in 2010 and sentenced to 6 years in prison. Additionally, he was banned from making films for 20 years and from giving interviews to foreign media.

In a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, he continued to make films under very difficult circumstances including the 2011 This Is Not a Film that was shot on a digital camera in his home during his house arrest. With “3 Faces”, he has returned to the form that made him famous. Like his 1995 premiere film “White Balloon”, it is an affectionate look at traditional society in Iran but like his 2003 “Crimson Gold” and the much sharper 2006 “Offside”, it contains his ongoing critique of Iranian society. If in the past he targeted the Islamic morality state apparatus, in this new film his focus is on the age-old patriarchal norms of the countryside that help to keep the clerics in power just as is the case in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey. What gives “3 Faces” its power is the ambivalence Panahi feels toward traditional society. It inspires his art at the same time it underpins a social and political system that tried to ban his films.

The film begins with Jafar Panahi in the driver’s seat of a car playing himself, while in the front seat next to him sits a well-known actress named Behnaz Jafari who is also playing herself. As they head down a highway at night, Jafari is watching a video that was sent to Panahi but really intended for her eyes. A young woman in a remote village in the Azeri region of Iran has decided that her family’s refusal to allow her to go to a conservatory in Tehran makes life not worth living. We watch her advance toward a noose hanging from a branch in a cave, placing it around her neck, and finally jumping to her death or so it would seem.

Panahi and Jafari are driving toward the village of Saran in the East Azerbaijan Province to discover whether the aspiring actress named Marziyeh Rezaei (also played by herself) is really dead or whether she has faked a suicide to get the attention of the two powerful celebrities.

Most of the dialog in the film, except that between the three principals identified above, is in the Azeri dialect of the Turkish language that only Panahi and Marziyeh understand. Much of the film consists of Panahi chatting with elderly residents of Saran who are obviously nonprofessionals and likely played by the actual men and women living there.

When Panahi and Jafari stroll through the local cemetery to see if they can find a fresh grave for Marziyeh, they are startled to see an octogenarian woman lying in an open grave with a candle in her hands. She explains that she is rehearsing for her funeral but gives no indication that her death is imminent. The candle is meant to keep snakes away at night, a scourge that God visits on the wicked. Are you wicked, Panahi asks, you seem to be without sin. She replies that god only knows.

Another old-timer, a man in his 70s by the looks of his grizzled face, has a chit-chat with Jafari late at night in the village. He has come back from his new son’s circumcision with the boy’s foreskin in a small cloth sack. A wide-eyed Jafari asks what he will do with it. He explains that if you bury a boy’s foreskin near a penitentiary, he will grow up to be a criminal but if you bury it near a university, he will grow up to be a doctor or an engineer. Like Panahi and the old woman in the open grave, she takes it all in without scoffing. Later she presents the foreskin and an accompanying letter to Panahi from the old man that he should present to an actor from the golden age of Iranian film. When Jafari tells him that the actor is out of the country, he asks if Panahi can present it to him the next time he is traveling abroad. She explains that the Panahi is not permitted to leave Iran and the actor is not permitted to enter the country. This is about as close as the film comes to commenting on the repressive norms of the Islamic Republic.

The film wrestles with the dichotomy between traditional values and the urgent need for modernization. An elder tells the famous director and actress that Marziyeh was “empty-headed” and that acting was not going to be of much use in a village that is desperately in need of doctors. Look around, he tells them. There is a satellite dish on every house that allows them to see Jafari’s TV shows but no place to go if you become ill.

In a way, the real star of the film is the village of Saran itself that is nestled on a mountaintop and whose homes and streets look pretty much like they looked a century ago. If Iran ever becomes a thoroughly modern republic based on the right of women to live fulfilled lives, there has to be a way for the solidarity of village life to continue. As someone who grew up in a village of 500 people nestled in the Catskill Mountains, Saran resonates with me. My village has been savaged by the collapse of the tourist industry but perhaps Iran can mediate between tradition and modernity in the future. What it certainly doesn’t need is a bullying imperialist power like the USA to foist its own warped ideas about “modernity” on a people who have one of the oldest civilizations on the planet.

 

March 1, 2019

Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of The People

Filed under: Film,journalism — louisproyect @ 10:31 pm

Opening today at the Quad Cinema in NY and at the Laemmle a week from now is the documentary “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of The People” that despite being made before 2016 (based on the typical schedule of film productions) could not be more relevant to the current crisis. With the battle between Donald Trump and the “mainstream media” over “fake news”, a look at the life and career of Joseph Pulitzer will give us the perspective we need on how newspapers functioned in the broader fabric of American society during the Gilded Age. He symbolized the ultimate contradictions of the capitalist press. Determined to boost circulation, he tailed after William Randolph Hearst’s “fake news” during the Spanish-American War and lived to regret it. If “click bait” is the bête noire of electronic media, so was the circulation wars between Pulitzer’s The World and Hearst’s The Journal. For those who are nostalgic for the good old days of responsible reporting, seeing this excellent documentary will remind you how much they have in common with the bad new days we are living through now.

Born in 1847, Joseph Pulitzer was a Hungarian Jew who grew up in dire poverty. Of his 8 siblings, only one other grew into adulthood. His father died when he was 11, leaving the family to its own devices. At the age of 17, he took advantage of a recruitment offer from the Union army. Since Lincoln had a shortage of troops as a result of rich northerners paying bribes to keep their kids from serving, immigrants would get tickets to America to replenish the ranks.

Managing to stay alive, Pulitzer found himself unemployed at the end of the war but resourceful enough to “Go West, Young Man” as Horace Greeley put it. He ended up in St. Louis and found himself playing chess with Carl Schurz, the German revolutionary who was a “Forty-Eighter” just like Pulitzer’s uncles. That in itself might have recommended him to Schurz but the older and highly successful man was far more impressed with the beating he took at the chessboard from the youth. Seeing him as a gifted individual, he hired him to work at his newspaper. Rising rapidly to the top, Pulitzer amassed enough money to buy what would become the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a newspaper that the family owned until 2005.

As ambitious as he was shrewd, Pulitzer decided that New York was the place to go if you wanted to be in the media “big leagues”. Leveraging the money he made in St. Louis, Pulitzer bought The World and turned into the kind of newspaper that he pioneered, namely a tabloid-style voice that took up the cause of poor people and that held the feet of the rich to the fire.

I say “tabloid-style” because it was a full-page newspaper like the NY Times rather than the NY Post or the NY Daily News. However, the emphasis was on attention-getting stories about corruption, Gilded Age plutocracy of the sort symbolized by Stephen Schwarzman today, and “human interest” stories about the kinds of people who paid a penny each day to read The World.

A typical circulation ploy by Pulitzer was to publicize the need for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty that was being put together during the paper’s rise to the top. He called on New Yorkers to contribute to a fund to pay for the pedestal and who would be recognized for their contribution by being named in an Honor Roll in the paper. He made sure to update the Honor Roll only several days after the contribution was made (usually between a penny and a dime) in order to encourage those making a donation to buy the paper each day until their name showed up.

In 1895, Harvard graduate and rich kid William Randolph Hearst came to New York from California and launched the Journal. Showing the kind of mercilessness depicted in his fictional version in “Citizen Kane”, he began poaching reporters and editors from the World. In addition, he adopted the tabloid style of the World that was expressed above all by Hogan’s Alley, a comic strip that featured a bald kid in a yellow nightshirt nicknamed The Yellow Kid. After Hearst lured the author to the Journal, he escalated the sensationalism to the point of caricature, so much so that the term “yellow journalism” encompassed both newspaper.

When the battleship Maine blew up in Havana’s harbor, Hearst featured the same kinds of articles that led up to George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and LBJ’s war in Vietnam before that. “Fake news” would be an understatement. Under pressure to sell newspapers, Pulitzer began publishing the same kind of “yellow journalism” but would live to regret it. Close to his death, he featured investigative reporting on President Theodore Roosevelt’s virtual colonization of Panama that was calculated to enrich investors in the new canal. Roosevelt was so incensed that he sued Pulitzer for libel but the Supreme Court ruled in Pulitzer’s favor in the interest of freedom of the press.

The film benefits from interviews with academic historians and media professors but above all one interviewee stands out, namely Nicholson Baker, the author of the WII revisionist (after the fashion of Howard Zinn) “Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization”. In 1999, Baker discovered that the British Library had plans to junk more than 2,000 bound volumes of American newspapers, including hundreds of editions of Joseph Pulitzer’s ground-breaking color pages of the New York World. Baker spent $26,000 of his own money to rescue the archives and the film would not be nearly so brilliant without their images.

Most of us know the name Pulitzer through the annual prizes bestowed in his name. He funded the awards and the Columbia Journalism School as well. He was a complex man who deserved the complex treatment he received in this film. If newspapers are in bad shape today, we can at least be grateful that documentary film is in its golden age.

February 27, 2019

Styx

Filed under: Film,refugees — louisproyect @ 8:23 pm

Opening today at the Film Forum in New York, “Styx” is an unnervingly grim drama that strips the refugee crisis down to its bare essentials.

Rike, an attractive female doctor from Germany in her mid to late 30s departs from Gibraltar on her sailing yacht destined for a vacation on Ascension Island, which is in the south Atlantic about a thousand miles off the African coast. An independent woman strong enough to pilot her own boat, she wants to see the island that Charles Darwin encouraged England to colonize as a botanical garden. En route to the island, she leafs through a coffee-table book about the island that demonstrates her affinity for off-the-beaten track paradises.

Little does she anticipate that a few days into her trans-oceanic crossing, she will not find a paradise but a hell, as the title of the film indicates. The river Styx in Greek mythology was the boundary between the underworld and the world of the living, in which Rike dwells. The underworld in this instance was a leaking and incapacitated fishing trawler adrift in the ocean filled with sick and starving refugees that she spots on the horizon. Reacting as would anybody sworn to the Hippocratic Oath, she sails toward the trawler but stops a few hundred feet as a number of the desperate refugees begin swimming toward her yacht. She knows that her craft is too small to save them all but she does carry aboard a young African boy who is barely conscious despite having swum near her boat—or perhaps semi-conscious because of the effort it took.

After nursing the boy back to a reasonably healthy state, she is caught between the underworld of the refugees and the living world of her well-off fellow European citizens, including the Coast Guard officials who warn her to stay away from the trawler in order to avoid “chaos”. It becomes obvious before long that despite the wealth of the Europeans, they are the ones who symbolize the condemned sinners of both Greek and Christian mythology.

“Styx” is hardly what I would call entertainment. For that, you are better off going to see “A Star is Born” or “Crazy Rich Asians”. Just remember to leave your brain at home.

In the press notes, Wolfgang Fischer, the director of this powerful English-language film, was asked “Your film presents a moral dilemma . . . could we all find ourselves in the same situation as the protagonist?”

He replied:

I absolutely believe we could. To take an everyday example: suppose someone is attacked next to us in the subway. We didn’t choose this situation, but we need to act. Looking away is also a form of action. We need to decide. This can happen to every one of us. It is something universal. It changes one’s life. As an emergency physician, Rike knows the rule: to first protect your own life. She follows this rule. But of course the question remains whether she made the right decision.

February 23, 2019

Prosecuting Evil; Rocking the Couch

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:47 pm

On January 29, 2018 I wrote about the Chenogne massacre that was examined by Reveal, a syndicated investigative reporting radio show that can be heard here. Like everything else done by Reveal, it made for compelling radio, especially an interview with Ben Ferencz, the 98-year old buck private who was an investigator of Nazi war crimes and shortly after leaving the army became a lead prosecutor at Nuremberg. The Chenongne massacre was a mass murder of captive German soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge in retaliation for Americans being murdered in the same way a few days earlier. The Reveal reporter was interested in getting Ferencz’s reaction to this war crime in light of his 70-year long career as a legal expert on war crimes. Basically, he regarded the Chenogne massacre as a war crime but one that would never be prosecuted by a state that had just won the war. When asked if Stephen Spielberg and Tom Brokaw were justified in calling WWII GIs “the greatest generation”, he scoffed at the notion and stated emphatically that the greatest generation are those who resist war, like during Vietnam.

With that fresh in my memory, I was eager to watch a new documentary titled “Prosecuting Evil” that opened yesterday at the Cinema Village in New York and that will open at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on March 1. The film is basically an interview with Ferencz, who is as sharp and incisive as was on in the Reveal show. In addition to the interview, there are tributes to his work from a number of people with human rights credentials—some legitimate and others not at all. Among those with bogus credentials are Alan Dershowitz and Wesley Clark. All of the others are credible even though they share the same flaw as Ferencz, namely the ill-founded belief that global justice is possible as long as the capitalist system exists.

Besides the talking heads, there is chilling footage of the survivors of death camps as well as those who did not survive, including their charred remains in a Nazi crematorium. A 25-year old Ben Ferencz is seen making an opening statement at Nuremburg just barely visible over a lectern. He laughs at what it took to make him even this visible. He had to stand on a stack of books.

Ferencz was someone who benefited greatly from American capitalism in its ascendancy. He came with his parents at a very early age and grew up in New York when it was in its social democratic golden years. He graduated from CCNY and then went to Harvard Law School, benefiting from a project that paid tuition for students specializing in criminology, a focus that prepared him for his work at Nuremberg.

The final fifteen minutes of the film is devoted to the 98-year old man weighing in his mind whether global justice was possible, even if he counts as one of his major contributions the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) that is being touted as a body that might prosecute Bashar al-Assad for Nazi-like war crimes. Since we hear him speaking over images of Donald Trump surrounded by his henchmen, his agonizing over this question is understandable.

It would be interesting to see Ferencz and Yale law and history professor Samuel Moyn in a panel discussion. Moyn is the author of “Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World” and earlier works that diagnose the barriers that make peace and social justice a Quixotic venture. In 2012, he wrote an op-ed piece for the NY Times titled “Human Rights, Not So Pure Anymore” that conveyed the crisis of our age that in many ways echoes the futility of earlier efforts such as the League of Nations:

For those who long for a state and a world that not only protect liberties but also promote well-being, the human rights movement hasn’t made enough of a difference. Human rights have succeeded in combating totalitarianism and preventing atrocities but have proved less able to promote the good life for people suffering less spectacular wrongs.

That human rights have come down to earth since the days of the glamorous dissidents doesn’t make them useless. But it does mean that the utopia they call to mind is now inseparable from the realities of the world as it exists — from states to international bodies to transnational movements. For that reason, Chinese dissidents and their Western allies will need to be even more creative than their predecessors were in using human rights norms to achieve a reformed government.

Most of all, when they appeal to international human rights, they will have to face the fact that these once pure ideals are now much harder to separate from the impure world of daily policy making, international power and unfulfilled hopes.

Let me conclude briefly with a recommendation for a documentary titled “Rocking the Couch”  that went straight to VOD, including Amazon Prime. It is about the “casting couch” that victimized a group of women in the 1990s along the same lines as Harvey Weinstein but by relatively small players in the film industry, namely a couple of agents named Jerry Blumenthal and Wallace Kaye.

So desperate were young women to crack into the industry that they allowed Blumenthal and Kaye to sexually assault them on the slim possibility that this would lead to getting a role in a film or TV show. Now in their forties and fifties, they are older and wiser. Among them is Carrie Mitchum who is the granddaughter of Robert Mitchum and extremely acute in her understanding of the power relations in Hollywood. At one point, she says “the whole commodity is sex”, about as good a description of the film industry as can be found.

Among the revelations in the film is that the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) did nothing to seek justice for these women in the 1990s. Union officials told the women that they should write a letter complaining about the men and that was about it. In the 1930s, the SAG was a radical union that fought for the same kinds of gains that CIO unions were fighting for: higher wages, job protection, etc. It is very likely that there were no special concerns about “casting couch” abuses back then but whatever there was probably got even less attention during the witch-hunt when Communists were expelled from the union. Ronald Reagan became president of SAG in 1947 and probably cared about as much as protecting women from sexual predators as Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump. Watching the film persuaded me that a documentary about the politics of the Hollywood film industry is sorely needed. Any film students or aspiring filmmakers might want to look into this.

February 18, 2019

A Tuba to Cuba; Cuban Food Stories

Filed under: cuba,Film — louisproyect @ 6:41 pm

In June 2017, Donald Trump announced a get-tough policy with Cuba that would reverse Barack Obama’s easing of restrictions. In 2018, Cuba was dragged into imperialism’s growing confrontations with the governments of Venezuela and Nicaragua. As the last three states in this hemisphere that refuse to go along with the rightwing Lima Group agenda, they were naturally singled out by John Bolton as his targets in an “axis of evil” speech on November 1, 2018. As the clearest indication that Trump wants to isolate Cuba, he recently attacked an agreement reached by professional baseball and Cuba to allow Cuban players to join American teams without defecting.

Therefore, the arrival of two new documentaries about Cuba are most timely. Like “Buena Vista Social Club”, “A Tuba to Cuba” and “Cuban Food Stories” are less about ideology and much more about allowing American audiences to see the reality of Cuban life. If you’ve seen “Buena Vista Club”, you’ll realize that I am offering high praise when I tell you that they are just as good as Wim Wenders’s 1996 tribute to elderly musicians who tour the USA.

“A Tuba to Cuba” complements Wenders’s film by documenting the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s 2017 Cuban tour. This was a project initiated by Ben Jaffe, a tuba player who is the son of Allan Jaffe, the man who founded Preservation Hall in New Orleans in 1961. Allan Jaffe always dreamed about visiting Cuba since he saw it as a source of the potpourri of music that eventually evolved into jazz in the early 1900s. In addition, Jaffe was also determined to break down Jim Crow in his own way and in the spirit of other early civil rights activists.

Just by coincidence, I heard Jason Berry, the author of a new history of New Orleans, being interviewed on WFAN on Sunday morning a day before I saw “A Tuba to Cuba”. Although this is a sports talk station, Sunday morning between 6 and 8am is devoted to fascinating interviews conducted by Bob Salter, in this instance one that revealed Allan Jaffe’s role. An excerpt from Berry’s book can be read on the Daily Beast:

In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and Preservation Hall featured its first officially integrated band. Al Belletto, as the Playboy Club entertainment manager, was hiring Ellis Marsalis and other black musicians to perform in bands with white musicians. Mixed bands for white tourists were not like street demonstrations for civil rights. The new mayor, Victor Hugo Schiro, abhorred confrontations. The culture forced compromises on the city. A similar breakthrough happened with gays, albeit more slowly. The Krewe of Petronious invited guests in formal attire to a lavish tableau in a rented auditorium, as mainstream Carnival krewes had done for years, thwarting NOPD’s itch to bust-and-arrest. Complaints of police violence by gays and African Americans continued for decades; but as the drag queen beauty pageant became a fixture of Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street and gay Carnival krewes held by-invitation balls, the police attacks on closeted men dropped sharply by the ’80s. So, too, did the bar bribes.

None of this is covered in “A Tuba to Cuba” but suffice it to say that Allan and Ben Jaffe are men of the left and that the film is a posthumous fulfillment of his father’s long-time desire to visit a revolutionary society that destroyed its own Jim Crow system in the same year that Allan Jaffe founded Preservation Hall.

The film was co-directed by T.G Herrington and Danny Clinch. Herrington, who has a background in commercials, clearly had an affinity for Jaffe’s project since he was an executive producer for “The Free State of Jones”, the great abolitionist film. Clinch’s background is as still photographer, specializing in shots of professional musicians like Johnny Cash and Tupac Shakur.

For a scholarly account of the Cuba/New Orleans connection, I recommend Ned Sublette’s 2008 “The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square”. A New York Times review that year stated:

The author of the well-received “Cuba and Its Music,” Sublette here explores Cuba and St. Domingue as crucial influences on New Orleans.

A slave revolt that erupted in 1791 in St. Domingue ended in 1804 as free blacks proclaimed the Republic of Haiti. In 1809-10, approximately 10,000 Domingans (more than a third of them slaves) who had fled to Cuba immigrated to New Orleans, doubling its population. “No aspect of New Orleans culture,” Sublette writes, “remained untouched” by these whites, blacks and mulattoes. He is a passionate chronicler of the Africans’ resilience, of how they revived a cultural memory that gave life to music and enduring folkways — a memory that would, in the timeless words of an 1819 traveler, “rock the city with their Congo dances.” Sublette spotlights a gathering identity that formed in the open-air slave dances — hundreds of people, gyrating in sinuous rings, resurrecting tribal choreographies of a mother culture. “An African-American music was coming into existence,” he writes.

In essence, “A Tuba to Cuba” reunites New Orleans musicians with the men and women who were the roots of the tree upon whose branches they roosted. For those who think of New Orleans jazz in terms of Al Hirt and the Dukes of Dixieland, et al, I must stress that Jaffe’s band is much closer in spirit to Wynton Marsalis and even to the Neville Brothers than old-time jazz. Despite not understanding a word of Spanish, the musicians develop a remarkable affinity for traditional Cuban music as well as engage with (through a translator) Mother Africa spiritually by learning about Santeria and related beliefs. One Preservation Hall Jazz Band member is moved to tears as the head of the Tato Guines drumming school recounts the restrictions put on Africans during slavery that were as onerous as the ones John Bolton would impose if he had his way. For example, they were not permitted to make drums but as a way around the ban, they constructed furniture that could be used for dances by beating on their sides.

That kind of ingenuity continues to exist in Cuba, a country that despite all odds moves forward in the 21st century. As an act of solidarity, I urge my readers to see the film now playing at the Village East Cinema in New York and that will also be available as a DVD on March 15th. Check the film’s website for other screenings, including in S.F., L.A. and New Orleans.

Now available on iTunes, “Cuban Food Stories” was made by Asari Soto, a Cuban émigré who left Cuba during the “special period” but never became an anti-Communist. Indeed, it is obvious from this beautiful film that his implicit goal is to challenge the demonization of the island that will only make the common people, the heroes of his film, suffer.

If Ben Jaffe traveled all around Cuba to sample its music, so did Asari Soto go near and far to meet Cubans who were as talented with a stove and a frying pan as the musicians were with drums or guitar. Soto had vivid memories of the food he enjoyed before the “special period” and was anxious to find out if a return to relative normalcy might have allowed a great cuisine to resurface.

Ben Jaffe’s band members brought a gift of new instruments that they presented to music schools around the island. For his part, Soto has initiated a Culinary Initiative that is intended to allow Cuban chefs to visit the USA and vice versa. This kind of solidarity is essential in this period.

Like the late Anthony Bourdain’s CNN series, Soto’s film provides the same pleasure. You meet both restauranteurs as well as people in their homes making the best of what amounts to truly organic food. Unlike Bourdain, “Cuban Food Stories” puts the Cubans in the foreground. I understood that Bourdain was trying to challenge anti-Communist stereotypes in his show on Cuba but the merit of Soto’s film is to minimize ideological concerns.

The highlight of the film is a visit to a privately owned coffee plantation where the owner and his young son are followed by Soto as they gather ripe beans. Later in this segment, they prepare a roast pig over an open wood fire to herald the New Year. The farmer is a true product of Cuban socialism. Over and over he stresses the importance of quality rather than money. He obviously will not get rich as a small proprietor but being close to nature and having the freedom to grow and eat good food is all he really needs.

We also meet a fisherman who questions the value of being rich. If being rich means having a boat that you can sail across beautiful waters and enjoy first-class food like freshly prepared ceviche, he is already rich (we see him preparing ceviche on his boat.)

The last food expert we meet is a young hipster who owns a trendy restaurant in Havana decorated by his art. He tells Soto that he understands why people left during the “special period” but he decided to stay in Cuba. Now that things are turning around, he expects Cuba to be greater than ever.

Let’s do our best to help him and other Cubans realize their dreams. See both of these films and spread the word. You will wear a smile throughout both and be reminded that another world is possible, something so important in these cataclysmic times.

 

February 15, 2019

A Raymundo Gleyzer retrospective

Filed under: Argentina,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:14 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, FEBRUARY 15, 2019

Between Friday, February 22nd and the 28th, Anthology Film Archives will be presenting a retrospective of the films of Raymundo Gleyzer, a revolutionary born in 1941 and who died in a military prison in 1976 as one of thousands of desaparesidos. Like the myth of Sisyphus, the Latin American left seems to be perpetually condemned to being crushed by a boulder rolling back on it, just after it was pushed to the top of a mountain. For many young leftists, the sight one “pink tide” government after another being replaced by rightwing, pro-American forces is painful but this has been happening for generations.

In the early 70s, the stakes were much higher since the workers of Chile and Argentina were far more ready to seize power through a socialist revolution than has been the case more recently with temporizing governments like Lula’s. Gleyzer made films that were to the Argentine class struggle that Che Guevara’s AK-47 was to the guerrilla movements that were sweeping the continent. For putting the epochal struggle for the liberation of the South into a broader context, one that spans Simon Bolivar to today, Gleyzer’s films are essential. We should be grateful to the curators at Anthology Film Archives for scheduling this retrospective and urge my readers in the Greater New York area to make time to see his powerful body of work.

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February 11, 2019

Among Wolves

Filed under: Film,Yugoslavia — louisproyect @ 7:23 pm

In 2004, photographer Shawn Convey was traveling around Europe, including Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia. He became so consumed by the aftermath of the war in Bosnia (he said that he “felt drunk with questions”) that he sold everything he owned in Chicago and moved to Bosnia in order to begin making his first film. That finally came to fruition in 2016, when “Among Wolves” began showing up at film festivals. After a week-long run in Chicago this month, the documentary is now available as VOD/DVD and well worth your while. (Check the official website tomorrow for screening info.)

It is the story of a motorcycle club called the Wolves in Livno, a town in the predominantly Croatian area of western Bosnia, just across the border from the Republic of Croatia that seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991. Most of the men are veterans who fought against the Serbs but the press notes describe the club as multi-ethnic. Since the film is observational, it does not try to identify who is a Croat or a Serb but allows the men to simply go about their daily lives, which consists of menial jobs in a town plagued by unemployment, riding their bikes, and providing various humanitarian assistance to needy causes such as securing supplies for hospitals in Livno and Srebrenica, donating blood, doing repair work at an orphanage and—most importantly—attending to the needs of the wild horses that live in the spectacularly beautiful mountains near Livno.

The president of the Wolves is a middle-aged man named Lija who led a Croatian militia at the age of 20 back in 1991. He is a thoughtful and sympathetic character who provides the psychological and moral core of the film. It is clear that the Wolves provides the camaraderie that the men relied upon during the war, except in the context of what Jimmy Carter called “the moral equivalence of war”. The mountains of western Bosnia provide a stunning backdrop for the Wolves tending to the needs of the wild horses, including walking them across a road safe from traffic and toward a waterhole. Like the men, the horses were a casualty of the brutal war and by helping them regain the numbers lost to mortar attacks, mines and other weapons that horses had no investment in, the veterans heal themselves psychically as well.

While the press notes do not relate the war in Bosnia to the nativism that has gripped Europe and the USA in the recent past, I could not help but think of Donald Trump and his wall. Just as Yugoslavia was torn apart by nationalism, so is the USA descending into a febrile xenophobia that will condemn Hondurans and other people fleeing oppression into an early grave. What Lija’s bullets and those of his Serb enemies did back in 1991, so will those of drug gangs do to those turned away at the border. The blood will be on Trump’s hands this time.

Also condemned to an early grave will be the wildlife of the borderlands between Mexico and the USA if Trump’s wall is ever built. Like the wild horses, they salute no flag and are dead-set on roaming free. On December 10, 2018, the Washington Post reported on the environmental consequences of the wall:

Months later, by September, wildlife biologists and managers at Fish and Wildlife, which is part of the Interior Department, penned a list of “informal comments” on the possible impacts. In a draft letter prepared that month, career wildlife employees wrote that they were concerned the border wall would reduce “habitat connectivity” for rare ocelots and jaguarundi that roam the Santa Ana and Lower Rio Grande Valley national wildlife refuges.

While some fencing already exists in the two Texas counties, officials wrote that erecting more border wall in the region may limit animals’ access to drinking water and the intermingling within the cats’ populations. If the cats’ choice of mates narrowed, it could raise the risk of inbreeding.

These experts voiced concerns about the wall “leaving terrestrial wildlife trapped behind the levee wall to drown or starve” during floods. Fish and Wildlife suggested constructing berms south of the levee to give animals a path to flee from the flood-prone river valley.

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