Issue 175 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review



Reaping the harvest

Dir: Claude Berri

Gérard Depardieu plays the miners' leader
Gérard Depardieu plays the miners' leader

If anyone needs reminding how brutal and stultifying capitalism can be then Germinal is the film to see.

The story (based on Emile Zola's 19th century novel) centres on a mining community in recession hit France in the late 1860s. The hardships and deprivation of the miners' everyday lives are highlighted by the Maheu family. The family of nine all sleep in one room, with every member over the age of ten working down dangerous mines for wages that barely keep them alive. The cutting of these meagre wages proves the final straw for the miners who, led by the militant newcomer...Étienne and Maheu himself (Gérard Depardieu), strike.

The struggle that ensues is completely gripping and relevant to any modern strike. As the miners grow in confidence led by Maheu, the previously 'good worker', the strike very soon becomes more than a question of wages, generalising out to issues of basic justice, the value of human life versus profit.

The strength and sheer guts of the miners are mirrored by Maheude (Maheu's wife). Even as her family are dying around her through consumption and the bullets of the army, she refuses to contemplate surrender.

The miners' struggle isn't just against the mine owners and the state but with other workers, to get their support.

Whilst the miners fight for a crust of bread, the film brilliantly portrays how a recession hits the bosses--a mine owner explains to his dinner party guests how competition and falling prices mean workers have to pay for the crisis as he stuffs more lobster into his mouth.

This is a marvellous film which is rich in insights into the cruel workings of capitalism and how it has forged a power which can fight back--the working class. However, Berri's interpretation of Zola's book is deeply pessimistic--he concentrates on the decline of the struggle into acts of violence culminating in the castration of the local grocer who sold bread for sex with the desperate miners' wives. He himself admitted in a discussion after the film that his hopes for the future are dim. However, my memories of Germinal the book are different. The book is inspiring in its depiction of the depth of humanity and bravery workers can express even in the direst of circumstances. The last lines of the book illustrate how Zola felt about the possibilities for the future:

See this film--read the book.
Anna Gluckstein

The workers' friend

Dir: Stijn Coninx

The radical priest
The radical priest

One image dominates the opening of the film. We are in a textile factory in the Flemish town of Aalst. As the mechanical loom is pushed forward, small children advance on their knees, picking up bits of cotton. They have to be alert, for the loom is pulled back and any child caught unawares risks being crushed.

This is late 19th century Belgian capitalism, red in tooth and claw. Recession grips the country. The French speaking bourgeoisie argue among themselves about whether they can cut wages any further. They also attempt to keep socialist agitation to a minimum--through control of the non-socialist press, religion and by recruiting thugs to keep order. The workers themselves are cowed into sullen anger.

Into this grim world comes a priest, Father Daens. Appalled by the poverty he encounters, he denounces the bourgeoisie from the pulpit. Fighting every obstacle they put in his way, he eventually gets elected to parliament to give the textile workers a voice. This rebel against the Catholic hierarchy takes seriously what Pope Leo XIII says in his encyclical, that the workers have rights which must be respected. He soon discovers that the Church does not.

This film is not just about what happens to religious rebels who sympathise with the appalling suffering of the working class from the outside. It focuses on how workers themselves, through their own experience, begin to abandon religious illusions.

At the centre of the film is a young woman textile worker from a Catholic family. Her elder brother is a member of the bosses' band of thugs. She resents but puts up with the attentions of the foreman. But she is no socialist. She mocks the young socialist attempting to sell his socialist papers.

Daens, on the other hand, does command her respect. She begins to have hope when Daens forces the government to send a commission of inquiry to inspect the horrible conditions of the factory she works in. It is a naive hope that the great and the good will listen once the truth is known. Though warned by the foreman not to step out of line, she attempts to speak directly to one of the commissioners--only to find that he speaks no Flemish and she no French.

When one of the children picking up cotton is killed she leads a march of fellow workers to the commission. This time she hopes that the mangled child in her arms will be tangible proof that transcends the divisions of language. The march has religious overtones. It is like a procession with the dead child as a Christ figure. Her illusions are shattered when the mounted gendarmerie cut down the procession.

It is impossible not to be reminded of the procession led by Father Gapon in the 1905 Russian Revolution. Workers whose consciousness was totally shaped by religion also had illusions that the Tsar, their little father, would understand their plight.

The Flemish society depicted in the film is not as steeped in religion as Russia was. Nevertheless it is a society in which religion plays a major role in dividing the working class. Under pressure of class conflict the religion of the poor becomes a weapon against the ruling class. In the process both dissident priest and radicalised religious workers move beyond religion, even if they retain its forms.

Indeed, the film is about the shedding of other illusions besides religion. When Father Daens eventually gets into parliament, he soon discovers that his splendid denunciation of the factory owners is insufficient. Parliament is not the friend of the workers any more than the Pope is.

The film ends on a sober note. Daens has been expelled from the church. The young woman has been raped by the foreman. The workers appear no further forward than they were at the beginning, despite the demonstrations and the fights to get Daens elected. But something crucial has been learnt. As Daens himself puts it, the workers have no friends above them and only themselves to rely on. It is a hard lesson--but not a pessimistic one.

It is impossible to leave the cinema without being deeply moved but at the same time utterly optimistic about the future for the workers' struggles. This is a brilliant film which no socialist should miss.
Gareth Jenkins
On very limited release--so watch out for it!

Better late than never

And the Band Played On
Dir: Roger Spottiswoode

Dir: Jonathan Demme

For more than a decade Hollywood ignored the Aids epidemic. That has now changed. Two new films represent Hollywood's first attempts to deal with Aids.

Philadelphia is about one man's fight against the discrimination that faces people with Aids. Its strength is that it doesn't treat its lead character, Becket, as a passive victim.

The film has been seen by mass audiences who didn't know people with Aids and has challenged the perceptions of the disease.

And the Band Played On, on the other hand, is a hard hitting polemic against the American government which refused to give money for Aids research because it mainly affected gay men, against Reagan who refused even to say the word for years, and against drug companies who were more bothered about claiming the credit for discovering the virus than finding its cure.

The film is based on Randy Shilts' book of the same name. The book is a history of the disease, its spread, attempts to discover its cause and the effects it had on individuals and communities.

To try and turn it into a film was going to be hard and it doesn't always succeed. At times the images work well, for example counterposing scenes of Young Republicans chanting, 'Four more years', when Reagan was re-elected to scenes of people dying, their faces covered in the skin cancer Kaposi's sarcoma.

Because the film couldn't possibly cover in two hours what the book covered in 600 pages, it concentrates on the detective story aspect. Scientists play detectives searching for the murderer--the HIV virus. This means it neglects some of the social aspects surrounding the epidemic.

The most controversial aspect of Shilts' book was his position that the bathhouses (places where gay men met to have sex) should be shut down. He believed that they were a major cause of the spread of Aids. Most lesbian and gay activists opposed this view.

The film unsuccessfully tries to cover this long running debate in one scene.

There are criticisms to be made of both films, but at least films about Aids are now being made. It is after all a disease which according to the World Health Organisation will affect 40 million people by the end of the century.
John Beckley


Free thinker

Tony Benn: Speaking up in Parliament

You've read the diaries. Now watch the video.

Tony Benn is a marvellous speaker. He is articulate, witty and always passionately committed to his subject.

The video shows ten extracts from speeches he made in parliament since the cameras arrived. It opens with a rousing speech in October 1992 in opposition to the pit closures promised by Michael Heseltine. It was the day when hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Hyde Park in support of the miners.

He captured the anger in the park. He lambasted and exposed the vindictiveness and hypocrisy of the government. If market forces could never be tampered with, he asked, how come farmers were subsidised? And if they could be tampered with, why couldn't miners also be paid not to produce? The answer, he said, was in the attitude of the Tories: farmers were friends; miners were the enemy within.

On the impending Gulf War, he put forward simple, irrefutable and, above all, socialist arguments. He denounced America's claim to be the world's moral policeman by reminding parliament of the US's invasions of Grenada and Panama. He exposed Western leaders' hypocrisy by listing other invasions which they had done nothing about. And he explained that the only reason they were so enraged by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was that it threatened their supplies of oil.

The video is a strange cocktail. Fierce denunciations of nuclear weapons, or the effects of Thatcherism on ordinary people in the 1980s, or the sale of arms to Iraq, are interrupted by equally passionate speeches against fox hunting and for women's ordination. One minute you are marvelling at his courage when he defends the rights of Sinn Fein. The next you are wondering what on earth he is talking about when he explains the opposition to increased union in the EC.

The inconsistency is a reminder of Tony Benn's isolation. His party's leaders can't stand his politics and his army of fans of the early 1980s has long since melted away. For these reasons, perhaps, he feels free to say exactly what he thinks--a refreshing novelty indeed for a Labour MP.
Clare Fermont


Songs of slavery

Kicking at the system
Kicking at the system

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, five to ten million slaves were shipped to Brazil from western and southern Africa. They arrived first in the Northeastern port of Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia where, for a hundred years, their labour made Brazil the world's biggest exporter of sugar. That history of brutal exploitation here, and in the silver mines and coffee plantations further south, remains alive in a legacy of subtle but deeply ingrained racism and virtual social and economic apartheid.

But there is another history, one of resistance, from the rebellions and independent republics of escaped slaves to the ways in which dance, music and religion sustained their memory and identity, transforming and often subverting the culture of their oppressors in the process.

Nowhere is this tradition of resistance more alive than in Bahia itself, whose culture is being celebrated in a London festival this month. There is an opportunity to experience the art of capoeira, a technique of footfighting developed by the slaves. Outlawed under the imperial regime, it became disguised as an excitingly acrobatic dance.

A series of talks and discussions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts will examine the cult of Orishas, or candomblé.

There will also be two lectures by and about the Bahian writer Jorge Amado, whose widely translated novels, such as Gabriela, Cloves and Cinnamon, popularised the re-evaluation of the black presence in Brazilian society. Amado's early socialist realist novels of the 1930s, which marked the beginning of his loyalty to the Stalinist Communist Party, charted the capitalist transformation of Bahia's plantation economy and the revolutionary possibilities this opened up.

The Barbican Centre is screening a series of films, beginning with a profile of the region, 'Bahia of all the Saints'. The programme includes Nelson Pereira dos Santos' marvellous adaptation of the novel Barren Lives, the story of a family of peasant migrants struggling to survive victimisation and drought in the and Northeastern interior, and Carlos Diegues' Quilombo, about the first rebel slave community which survived for nearly a century until its repression in 1695.

The festival ends in the Royal Albert Hall with a 'musical extravaganza', bringing together 50 drummers and dancers of the Mangueira Samba School and four leading figures of Brazilian popular music who were central to the movement known as Tropicalia which in 1967, three years into the military dictatorship, revolutionised the music industry by experimenting with a combination of samba, electric rock and Bahia's African and rural traditions. This was too much for the regime (and the orthodox nationalist left) to stomach, and two of them were imprisoned and exiled.

In his 1991 album Circuladò one of the musicians, Caetano Veloso depicted the decaying urban landscape of Sao Paulo and linked it to the global crisis in a multilingual refrain, 'Something's out of order in the New World Order.' Tropicalia 2, his most recent collaboration with Gilberto Gil, returns to the historical legacy of Bahia's traditions of slavery and resistance. An extraordinary rap composition, 'Haiti', inspired by a real incident, exposes the profoundly racist character of the city's repressive police force.

Try to catch some of this festival if you can.
Dave Treece
Festival of Bahia, 1 May to 1 June. Festival Hotline 081-748 0276

Poems of protest

For the last 30 years the Brazilian poet Thiago de Mello has actively merged literary creativity with revolutionary struggle and suffered imprisonment and exile.

De Mello's first poems appeared in 1951 and for 12 years the rare musicality and insight of his verse won widespread acclaim. Under the Kubitschek government he worked as the country's cultural attache first in Bolivia and then, in 1962, in Chile. The Brazilian coup was his catalyst and his poetry became a vehicle of revolutionary awareness.

When in April 1964 the junta introduced its 'Institutional Act No 1', debarring hundreds of people from political life for ten years, de Mello publicly retorted with an open parody of the dictators' edict: The Statutes of Man (Standing Institutional Act)' has to this day circulated in books, posters, records, cassette tapes and been declaimed in theatres and staged as both oratorio and ballet. Its 'Final Article' decrees:

In March 1965 the dictatorship in Brasilia dismissed de Mello from his diplomatic post. Returning to his country, he plunged into relentless political and literary resistance to the new tyranny, whose torrent of repression engulfed workers and students.

In October of that year Brasilia University was closed and intellectuals arrested wholesale. The 'Institutional Act No 2' proscribed all political parties. On 21 November de Mello was jailed with a number of his comrades for demonstrating against dictator Castello Branco as he opened the conference of the Organisation of American States in Rio de Janeiro.

'Institutional Act No 3' was issued on 5 February 1966 abolishing direct election of state governors which de Mello countered with his 'Song of Armoured Love'

His poems written from 1971 to 1974, collected as Poetry Pledged to Life Both Mine and Yours encompass a breadth of experience unequalled in contemporary world verse: the lines are directly inspired by the Chilean workers' struggle of the early 1970s and have a telling force and outrage at the butchery of reaction:

In the late 1970s the crisis ridden Brazilian dictatorship began to fall apart. The Figueiredo government released many political exiles and detainees in August 1979. De Mello returned to Brazil and, sailing home up the Amazon, reflected on the torment suffered by the people of Brazil, while lambasting the hypocrisy of the newly fledged 'democrats':

Struggle, persecution and enforced exile have tempered de Mello's grasp of his native Amazonia, whose hardships and exploitation he has come to understand as a fact of worldwide capitalist robbery and class despotism. Yet his poems also condense a simpler revolutionary poignancy:

Richard Chappell
Statutes of Man: Selected poems of Thiago de Mello 1951-1992, is to be published later this year by Spenser Books


Spokesman for generation X

Obituary: Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain

When Kurt Cobain committed suicide sometime during the first week of April he became, as his mother put it, 'another member of that stupid club' of dead rock stars; as if such tragedies are inevitable in the 'rock 'n' roll world'. Unsurprising, maybe: inevitable, they are not.

Kurt Cobain and his band Nirvana have been a dominant force in popular music, inspiring imitators and influencing other styles of music, for example by Credit to the Nation in their song 'Call It What You Want'.

Nirvana has been seen as the leading exponent of what the media have styled 'grunge'. Developed in the music scene around Seattle in the northwest of the US, the music is characterised by blasts of raw guitar noise and muted but angry lyrics, full of suppressed anger and bitterness. This music reflected the disillusionment with the American Dream of a dispossessed generation the so-called 'Generation X'. These are 20 somethings drifting through a series of poorly paid jobs, seeing no hope in the future.

Cobain grew up in Aberdeen, a small logging town deep in redneck country, somewhere near Seattle. He hated the 'American macho male' culture in the isolated working class community and retreated into music and art. School offered nothing, and low paid jobs even less. He worked for a while as a cleaner in a hotel until sacked for falling asleep. Music was one of the few things that Kurt valued and forming a band with a friend provided an outlet for his creative talent.

As part of the newly thriving music scene in the northwest, Nirvana was soon noticed for its brooding intensity which often resulted in trashed equipment onstage. Despite the harshness of the sound, Cobain's songs were always distinctive and well structured, even melodic at times.

Big business soon noticed that something was going on in Seattle that they could make money from. 'Grunge fashion' was adopted by that most insipid of worlds: the fashion catwalks of Paris, New York, Milan and London, and Nirvana was adopted as the flagship of grunge by the record and media companies.

Soon MTV sponsored bands like 4 non Blondes, and the Spin Doctors were taking 'grunge' into a safer, anaesthetised arena and removing any real anger. But it was Nirvana, not a manufactured band, which struck a chord with the alienated youth.

As Nirvana became more and more famous, Cobain found it harder and harder to subvert the plans of the record companies and media.

The media, always hungry for stories, seized on Cobain's nonconformist stance--he publicly supported causes such as 'Rock the Vote' and the pro-choice campaign--and began to hound him and his wife, Courtney Love, with the usual rock star stories of drug taking and alcoholism. The culmination was an article in Vanity Fair magazine which implied that Courtney was taking heroin while pregnant with their child, Frances. This led to the state taking the baby away from them.

The British music press has been trying desperately to explain the circumstances of Cobain's death, but has failed to point out who is really to blame. An article in the Melody Maker said 'It's beyond politics. Even in an ecologically balanced, perfect socialist state, with a nice house, nice car, nice food and nice family for everybody, rock 'n' roll will fuck up, kick over the traces.'

But it's not rock music that pushes people to the edge, it's the media and music industry that turns individuals into icons and that takes control of the music from its creators and turns it into a commodity. Cobain saw this, and any enthusiasm he had for writing and performing was drained by this commoditisation of his art. As his suicide note stated, 'Sometimes I feel as if I should have to punch a time clock before I walk out on stage'.
Ian Bosworth and Ashlea Harris

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page