Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 12, 2015

Human Rights Film Festival 2015

Filed under: Film,human rights — louisproyect @ 9:54 pm

Last night the Human Rights Watch Film Festival opened in New York. Judging by the four films I saw in advance, my recommendation is to look at the schedule (https://ff.hrw.org/) and buy tickets for some of the best political films being made today. Whatever you think of HRW, this is a project that puts it best foot forward whatever mischief it has been up to in Venezuela or elsewhere.

Additionally, I will be saying something about a documentary titled “Welcome to Leith” that is playing in Brooklyn tonight at 9pm, admittedly a little late in the game. However, even if you can’t make it to the screening, you should keep an eye out for the film that chronicles the attempt of neo-Nazis to take over a tiny village in North Dakota that was a virtual ghost town.

“3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets”

This is the definitive critique of “stand your ground” laws based on a white man’s killing of a Black teenager in Jacksonville, Florida not long after the Trayvon Martin killing. Jordan Davis was sitting in the back seat of an SUV with his friends in the parking lot of a strip mall listening to rap music while another friend was in a convenience store picking up some items. Just after Michael Dunn pulls up alongside them to allow his fiancée to pick up some wine in another shop, he asks them to turn down the music, which they do. Jordan Davis, however, takes offense and turns the radio up again. Words are exchanged at that point back and forth until Dunn takes a revolver out of his glove compartment and fires 10 bullets into their car, killing Davis. After his arrest, he offers an alibi that Davis was holding up a shotgun that he planned to use against him. So he was killed in self-defense.

The film consists mostly of filming in the courtroom and interviews with Jordan Davis’s parents and the friends who were with him that day. Director Marc Silver also had access to Michael Dunn’s fiancée whose testimony was critical to the outcome of the trial. At the risk of violating the usual spoiler alert strictures, I can say that she put morality above personal loyalty.

“No Land’s Song”

One of the results of the Islamic hijacking of the Iranian revolution in 1979 was the banning of female singers in public unless men accompanied them. Composer Sara Najafi was determined to challenge and overturn this sexist measure by organizing a concert in Tehran that brought together some of the country’s most talented female vocalists that would be backed by Iranian and French musicians who would travel there to show their solidarity.

The film is a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. When you hear the singers perform, you will be deeply moved by the Iranian style that deserves a wider audience both here and in the country where it originates. Due to the obstacles posed by American controls over artist visas since September 11th, we have been robbed of the opportunity to hear some glorious music.

The controls in Iran are just as baleful but driven by medieval attitudes rather than xenophobia. In some shocking scenes, we see Najafi making the case for female performances to a high-ranking mullah who babbles on about the danger of men being sexually aroused by the voice of a woman.

Ayat Najafi, the brother of Sara, directed the film. This is not the first film he has made about the oppression of women in Iran. Seven years ago he directed “Football Under Cover” about the first match of a female team in Iran with a visiting team from Germany. While some of the worst features of the Ahmadinejad regime are gone, the struggle continues to put men and women on an equal footing. For those who are inclined to support the “anti-imperialism” of the Ahmadinejad wing of the Iranian ruling class, the film should go a long way to clarifying the issues. As Emma Goldman once put it, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

“The Trials of Spring”

This is the definitive examination of the Egyptian political landscape in the aftermath of the Tahrir Square protests that gave the country so much hope. Both the men who gathered at the protests and the forces of law and order saw the degradation of women as key to maintaining the status quo.

The main subject of the film is Hend Nafea, a young feminist and revolutionary who was put on trial for her role in a peaceful demonstration that was attacked by al-Sisi’s goons. Nafea is a living symbol of the Egyptian revolution that was victimized for no other reason than demanding equal rights for women. Despite their differences over Islamic theology, the elites in Egypt and Iran share a belief that women are inferior to men.

The film will give you a strong sense of how Egyptian youth became confused over the presidency of Mohamed Morsi. While there is little doubt that the coup was a terrible blow to the nation’s hopes, there were ample signs that the Muslim Brotherhood had little commitment to women’s rights.

Gini Reticker has focused on women’s rights in previous films. Her “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” told the story of women who organized a peace demonstration in war-torn Liberia at great risk to their life and freedom. If you believe that women’s rights is inextricably linked to the overall struggle for human rights and social change, this film is a must-see.

“The Wanted 18”

In the first Intifada, the people of Beit Sahour in the West Bank decided that they would embark on a program of self-sufficiency that would be a kind of forerunner to the independent Palestinian state that they were struggling for.

This entailed the creation of a small-scale dairy farm that would be made possible by the purchase of 18 cows from an Israeli kibbutz that was less hostile to Palestinian aspirations than the Likudniks. The dairy was so successful that the IDF occupying forces was determined to shut it down since it was supposed to be a security threat. I know that this sounds like a Joseph Heller novel or MASH but this actually happened.

Codirected by Amer Shomali, a Palestinian artist, and Paul Cowan, a Canadian, the film reflects the absurdist element of what took place and uses Claymation to dramatize the cows’ reaction to the conflict that is taking place around them. The film also opens on June 19th in NY (Cinema Village) and LA (NoHo 7).

“Welcome to Leith”

This is showing tonight at 9pm at The Old American Can Factory on 232 Third Street. Leith is a tiny village of 24 residents not far from the booming gas fields of North Dakota. In 2012 Craig Cobb showed up with a plan to make Leith the epicenter of White Nationalism in the USA by buying up land and electing his allies to the Town Council. Despite the reputation of rural America as a backwater of racism and reaction, the village rejected him like a healthy body resisting a virus.

The film was co-directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, who raised $60,000 through Kickstarter to make it possible. It is just one of the more recent examples of how low-cost digital filmmaking funded through the Internet can serve as leading edge social commentary. While Hollywood withers on the vine, radical documentary is flourishing thanks to the computer revolution.

May 29, 2015

Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa

Filed under: Film,human rights,South Africa — louisproyect @ 9:11 pm

On Sunday evening the Peabody Award will be presented to Abby Ginzberg for her documentary on Albie Sachs titled “Soft Vengeance”, a film based on his 2011 memoir of the same title. After having watched the film, I can recommend it without any hesitation despite the tendency to skirt over South Africa’s current troubles that some analysts on the left have described as economic apartheid.

Born into a Jewish and Communist family in 1935, Sachs became an activist at an early age. When he was seventeen he took part in an act of civil disobedience by sitting in the “Blacks only” section of a train station. Although prepared to be arrested and jailed, he was sent home because of his youth.

After getting trained as a constitutional lawyer, Sachs became one of the ANC’s chief legal representatives. The apartheid regime, as is the case with dictatorships everywhere, saw such lawyers as being as dangerous or even more dangerous than guerrilla fighters. In 1963 he was arrested and placed in solitary confinement for 90 days, a punishment that broke his spirit to the extent that self-exile to Britain was the only way he could regain the spirit he needed to move forward again as an ANC activist.

Despite the prestigious academic career he was pursuing, he never felt at home in Britain and yearned to return home to Africa. On the suggestion of the ANC, he relocated to Mozambique shortly after its independence and plunged himself into drafting laws for the newly liberated state and continuing to provide legal advice to the ANC.

In 1988, as he opened the door of his car to take a trip to the beach, a bomb went off and cost him his right arm and the sight in his left eye. This was around the time that the South African government was embarked on a reign of terror that would cost the life of ANC leader Ruth Furst from a parcel bomb in Mozambique as well. Furst’s parents, like Sachs’s, were Jews and Communists.

The film is focused on Sachs’s life and career with a special emphasis on his efforts to foster a respect for constitutional rights in the new South Africa. He served as a Supreme Court justice in post-apartheid South Africa and helped to assemble the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that some critics fault for its overly generous concessions to the white war criminals and torturers. Sachs insists that South Africa would have been torn apart if vengeance had been sought. If the question is open to debate, it is very much hearing Sachs make the case since he is an eloquent defender of his views and obviously someone who knows from firsthand experience the costs of living in a lawless state.

When I receive word about the film’s screening to the general public, I will update you.


August 29, 2014

Deaths inspire calls for justice

Filed under: african-american,human rights — louisproyect @ 1:02 pm

This is an extraordinary article from my hometown newspaper in upstate NY, the Middletown Times Herald-Record. Ellenville is a sleepy little village about 10 miles from Woodridge, the hamlet I grew up in. The area was once a thriving resort area but now it is mostly home to failing farms and low-paying jobs at the local hospital, fast food restaurants, etc. In a recent CounterPunch article, my friend John Halle posed the question whether Ferguson is the American Spring. By the looks of this article, I’d say it was.

Deaths inspire calls for justice

Police culture cited during Ellenville rally
Top Photo
Pam Krimsky of Highland held a placard at an NAACP rally supporting civil rights Thursday night in Ellenville. About 80 people attended the rally, which was sparked by the recent deaths of two men who were killed during incidents with police officers.JIM SABASTIAN/For the Times Herald-Record

ELLENVILLE ­— Maude Bruce, in her yellow NAACP hat and T-shirt, walked in front of a crowd of about 80 people Thursday evening and spoke of the death of Eric Garner.

“Here we are again. Demanding justice,” Bruce said. “Whenever this happens, it touches me.”

Maude spoke from experience. About 27 years ago, her 20-year-old son Jimmy Lee Bruce was killed by a chokehold applied by a white, off-duty Middletown police officer.

Bruce, who is the head of Ellenville’s NAACP, led the rally at Ellenville Liberty Square. It came in the wake of the deaths of Garner, who died of a chokehold applied by a cop in Staten Island, and Michael Brown, an 18-year-old shot by a police officer in in Ferguson, Missouri.

Both men were black, both were unarmed and both incidents are under investigation.

The deaths of the two men have spurned nationwide anger over police tactics, racial profiling and the racial makeup of police forces.


Second march this month

The rally was at least the second locally this month. Two weeks ago about 50 people gathered in front of Kingston City Hall to chants of “hands up, don’t shoot” at a vigil for Brown organized by Citizen Action.

Eric Monroe took off his bucket cap, threw on his black beret, and got up in front of the crowd wearing his black shades.

“How many more deaths do we need before we realize we’re all in peril,” Monroe said.

Monroe, executive director of the Sullivan County Human Rights Commission, said an ingrained police culture is sometimes more to blame than race for abuses of authority. But he stressed police need to equally represent the people they police, too.

“The police department has to reflect the community,” Monroe said.

Wilbur Aldridge, regional director of the NAACP, told the crowd that police who abuse procedures need to to be held accountable. And scrutiny on those problems will increase.

“It’s our job to hold police to the fire,” Aldridge said. “It will no longer be the fireplace, it’s going to be the furnace as far as law enforcement and anyone doing anything they shouldn’t be doing.”

Eben Nettles-Abrams, 17, told the crowd that “a good society hears the cries of a community and responds” and that the death of Brown, just 18, sparked a nerve among him and his friends.

“It kind of scares us,” he said. “It seems like that’s the trend.”

A.J. Williams, SUNY New Paltz black studies professor, talked of blacks’ roles in history, work and war.

“We must take the bull by the horns. Black people must begin to own their history,” he said. “Our grandchildren cannot grow up thinking this is the way it has to be.”


June 10, 2014

Human Rights Film Festival 2014

Filed under: Film,human rights — louisproyect @ 12:44 am

Screen shot 2014-06-09 at 8.31.03 PM

Thanks to the growing use of Vimeo online screeners, it has become much easier to write articles in advance of film festival openings that relied in the past on DVD’s or special press screenings that usually occurred during the hours when I was at my desk at Columbia University.

That was one of the reasons I never made to the annual Human Rights Film Festival screenings in the past but this year I was able to view seven films that will be shown from June 12th to June 22nd. The festival is a project of Human Rights Watch, an outfit that has a mixed record to say the least. When it comes to nations that are on the State Department’s shit list, they can be quite reprehensible—their role in Venezuela has been most shameful. On the other hand, if I were a political prisoner being tortured somewhere whose cause that HRW had taken up, I’d be glad for their support. If your tendency is to reduce politics to a global chess game in which you have to play either White or Black, HRW will naturally be black. But reality contains 50 shades of grey, none of them having anything to do with sex I should add.

Furthermore, the young and often very far to the left documentary filmmakers whose works get shown at the festival are reliant on it for a screening since the commercial possibilities for a film about—for example, as you will see below—four lesbian women from Newark serving prison terms for attacking a homophobic bully in Greenwich Village are quite limited. On the other hand, that is exactly the kind of film that interests me as well as my readers.

Given the urgency of the Arab revolt, it is not surprising that a number of films dealt with it from a number of different perspectives. Let me start with them.

Because Cyprus is part of the EU, the Greek sector became a designated destination point for political refugees, including a preponderant number of Palestinians feeling sectarian violence in Iraq. Most are determined to make it to Europe and see Cyprus only as a way station. Despite being totally reliant on EU support and being prohibited from taking jobs in Cyprus for at least six months, a wave of xenophobia has swept the island after the fashion of Golden Dawn in Greece. When fascist threats fail to intimidate newly arrived refugees, there is the additional barrier represented by local immigration officials who put all sorts of obstacles in their path. The local branch of Golden Dawn in Cyprus is the ELAM, or the National Popular Front. As is the case with Greece, Cypriotes committed to human rights have mobilized against them. Their cause is taken up in “Evaporating Borders”.

“First to Fall” traces the steps of Hamid and Tarek, two young Libyans and close friends who live in Montreal and enjoy a peaceful and secure existence. When the revolt against Gaddafi erupts, they are riveted to news from their homeland and reports from Youtube and various websites. So inspired are they by the resistance to a 42-year-old dictatorship that they decide to return to Libya and become part of the armed struggle.

What strikes you almost immediately is that while the two young men are obviously motivated by political ideals (one lost family members during one of the waves of repression), they chatter about taking up the gun as if they were going to spring break in Florida.

Hamid, the older of the two, starts off as a videographer in Misrata but soon gets “promoted” to be a fighter after almost no training. In the bloody attempt to prevent the city from being overrun, he is hit by shrapnel and forced to undergo three surgeries to save his leg. In trying to deliver arms to combatants in Zawiya, the city of his birth, the 21-year-old Tarek is ambushed by Gaddafi’s troops and suffers wounds that leave him as a paraplegic.

Hamid stays in Libya to work in the Ministry of Defense. In the final moments of the film, that were recorded one year after the fall of Gaddafi, he describes himself as depressed by the government’s inability to move the country forward. For his part, Tarek, who has returned to Montreal, is preoccupied by his disability and cloudy future. Neither young man understood the full implications of going into battle against a well-armed professional military. Both would have been better off working for peaceful change inside Libya but Gaddafi made that impossible just as Bashar al-Assad is making it impossible in Syria. There are estimates of up to 15,000 casualties in the Libyan civil war, including Gaddafi’s soldiers. Proportionately, that would represent 750,000 dead in the US over an 8-month period. By any measure, this is one of the greatest bloodlettings in the Middle East and North Africa in recent memory. “First to Fall” is the definitive take on these events and should be of interest to anybody who has been following my articles on Libya, including to those who are violently opposed to my views. You owe it to yourself to see unmediated Libyan reality and not something filtered through the lens of Russian, Cuban or Venezuelan media.

As you probably know, “Return to Homs” depicts events that have been superseded by history. Largely because they were forced to confront tanks, helicopters and MIG’s with small arms, the young men defending Homs were forced to abandon the city. As Tacitus once said, “They make a desert and call it peace.” I reviewed the film a while back (https://louisproyect.org/2014/03/26/return-to-homs/) and urge you to see this most powerful film that will either remind you of the dedication and heroism of those who took arms against the Baathist dictatorship or perhaps convince you of why you were wrong to regard it as an instrument of American foreign policy.

To put it bluntly, “The Green Prince” is an Israeli propaganda film about Shin Bet’s recruitment of he son of a Hamas founder as an informer. Unlike the great feature film “Omar” that shows the brutal methods that made a Palestinian youth become a snitch, this documentary represents the informer as acting on higher beliefs—his newfound commitment to stop terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians. If you get past the obvious propaganda intentions, the film is a fascinating look at Israeli strategy at creating divisions in the Palestinian movement after the fashion of the FBI’s decades-long operations. Fascinating in its own way, like looking at photographs of some debilitating disease.

Director Sara Ishaq was born to a Yemeni father and a Scottish mother who separated when she was young. After deciding that Yemeni society was too restrictive, she moved to Scotland to be with her mother.

“The Mulberry House” was made during one of her infrequent visits to Yemen that coincided with the version of the Arab Spring that was occurring there. It is both a family drama and a drama of Yemenite society as the household joins the movement opposed to the corrupt dictator Ali Saleh who resigned under pressure but left his deputy in charge. This solution has evaded Syria, where the Baathists and the military/corporate elite run the state like a mafia.

Overhearing the conversations in the forward-thinking Ishaq household over whether Sara is dressed “modestly” enough leads you to believe that Yemeni society is in need of a social revolution that drives a stake through the heart of the patriarchy. Indeed, the plaints heard throughout the household from the male members about the “damned” Yemenis who tolerate Saleh make you wonder if the patriarchy is a sine qua non for the ongoing corrupt and dictatorial rule.

Continuing with the themes of patriarchy and democracy, “The Supreme Price” focuses on the efforts of Hafsat Abiola, a Harvard educated Nigerian woman, to challenge the military dictatorship in her country as well as the current government that serves its interests as well as that of foreign oil companies interested in one thing and one thing only: a steady supply of crude oil.

Hafsat is the daughter of M.K.O. Abiola, who was elected president in 1993 but overthrown by a coup almost immediately. As one of Nigeria’s richest men, he was apparently too committed to redistributing the nation’s wealth and was removed. In some ways, he was Nigeria’s Thaksin Shinawatra. When his wife gave interviews and led protests about her husband’s removal and subsequent jailing, thugs hired by the coup leaders killed her. Shortly afterwards, her husband died in jail supposedly from a heart attack but more likely from poison.

The film is an excellent introduction to Nigerian history, all the more important given the rise of Muslim “extremists” in the North. After seeing the film, you will wonder why the entire country is not swept by terror against the elites. Sadly, the only target Boko Haram deems worthy of targeting is schoolgirls.

“Nelson Mandela: the myth and me” is to my knowledge the first documentary since “Dear Mandela” (https://louisproyect.org/2012/09/26/dear-mandela/) that reflects the disillusionment that has set in since the ANC’s neoliberal betrayal became too obvious to ignore.

To give you an idea of he road that director Khalo Matabane has traveled, he made “Story of a Beautiful Country” in 2004, a documentary described on IMDB as follows:

This is an interesting, upbeat documentary that presents a cross-section of South African society several years after the end of apartheid. Especially interesting are the comments of the white South African and the married couple, a black Soutt African, and his South-African American wife who looks white but in fact isn’t. These interviews give the impression of the country populated with wonderful people who have lots to say and live in a country that is worthy of respect. Apartheid is gone, a relic of the past. Today’s South Africa has moved forward. Judging by the tone and quality of the interviews, South Africa is moving in the right direction.

If the ANC has lost people like Khalo Matabane, its days are numbered.

Unlike most films shown at the festival, “Siddharth” is a narrative film about the search of an impoverished Indian father for his son who has gone missing after being sent off to work as a child laborer, an all-too-common fate in a country whose “economic miracle” is not enjoyed by the overwhelming majority. I reviewed it last December (https://louisproyect.org/2013/12/03/2013-south-asian-film-festival-in-n-y-not-to-be-missed/) and can recommend it as a neorealist critique of a society that will certainly go from bad to worse under a government that promises to go full speed ahead with neoliberal “reforms”.

Finally, there’s “Out in the Night”, a film I alluded to earlier in this article. As is the case with documentary films on the leading edge, it takes up the cause of society’s most marginal figures: a group of four young women who defended themselves against a Black male homophobe whose hatred of “deviants” was as toxic in its own way as George Zimmerman’s of Trayvon Martin. Loved and accepted by their friends and parents, the four women had to put up with plenty of harassment in “the hood”. They came to the Village as often as they could to be among same-sexers, after the fashion of generations that came before them as described in Paul Buhle and David Berger’s “The Bohemians”.

Director blair dorosh-walther, who “identifies as gender non-conforming and uses both male and female pronouns”, described her/his inspiration for the film:

Immediately following the arrest of seven young African American women on August 18th, 2006, I became interested in their case. I read the many salacious headlines like “Attack of the Killer Lesbians,” “Gal Gang,” “I’m a man, lesbian growled” and on and on. However, it was the first of many New York Times articles that really gave me pause. The headline read: “Man is stabbed after admiring a stranger.” An admirer?? I really could not believe it. A man does not ‘admire’ teenage girls on the street at midnight. That is harassment. And I have never met a woman who hasn’t been harassed on the street at some point in her life, never mind in New York City where it is commonplace.

I don’t know about the “admiration” this creep had for the four teenagers, but my admiration for blair dorosh-walther is undying.

Go to http://ff.hrw.org/new-york for scheduling information on these and other films.

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